Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
Sponsored by: The Open University in Wales
John Gates, 82, lives in Maesteg and comes from a family of miners. He started working at Coegnant Colliery at just 15 and worked his way up from trainee colliery to fitter, to first aider and ‘rescue man’.
John said: “I left school with no qualifications, and I could barely read and write. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could make something of my life.
“I worked underground for 19 years but decided to apply for a position at a training centre after my wife became concerned about the dangers of the job. It wasn’t until I moved to the training centre as a first-aid instructor that things really started to change for me.
“I studied a basic skills course for two years and realised that I could do anything I put my mind to. I went on to get three O levels at Bridgend College and a qualification in Computing which allowed me to keep working for another five years. I stayed on as a training manager for other collieries when the training centre closed.”
During his time at the training branch, John studied for a degree in Humanities at the Open University. He also established himself as a distinguished embroiderer and travelled the world to teach and inspire others.
He continued: “Growing up, I was surrounded by my mother and neighbours who sewed and knitted. Throughout the strikes in the 1970s, I was bored stiff and short of money, so I decided to give embroidery a go.
“I started completing kits and soon realised I could improve on the designs. As I grew in confidence, I started to create my own. I went on a gold thread course at Longleat House and did a residential course on Japanese silk embroidery. I even embroidered my two daughter’s wedding dresses and later my grandchildren’s christening gowns.”
John embarked on a two-year PGCE teacher training course and worked in special needs education. He completed his PGCE in 1998, the same year he won his Adult Learner of the Year award.
“During Adult Learners’ Week in 2000, I was asked to give a speech to welcome international visitors to the Millennium Dome in London. I ended up chatting to a gentleman who turned out to be a Minister for Education in Australia and he invited me to Australia to talk about my experience of redundancy in light of the pits and steel mills closing over there.”
Word spread, and since then, John has been invited to speak at conferences in Norway to Brazil’s CONFINTEA VI. He has spoken twice in the Houses of Parliament, as well as several times in Scottish Parliament and the Senedd as a global learning ambassador.
“I take a lot of pleasure from talking to and inspiring others. The most important thing about my story is how much I’ve enjoyed learning. Education is an adventure; when you start down that path you never know where it’ll take you,” said John.
“It’s taken me around the world and to places that I could have never afforded to go to, but the greatest benefit of all is confidence. Doors open and shut, but when a door opens, I have the confidence to walk through it.”
In more recent years, John has taken up the position of Chairman of a Men’s Shed, a charity aiming to tackle physical and mental health issues in men.
John said: “Men’s Shed was originally started in Australia to tackle the number of suicides in the outback. Noticing a similar spike in Bridgend, we decided to turn what had been a veteran’s club into a Men’s Shed and meet every Thursday for a cup of tea, lunch, and to chat about various projects and issues. It’s also an opportunity for men to develop their skills and to feel a part of the community.”
“Since its introduction, we have started to work with Parc Prison. There’s now a Men’s Shed in the prison itself that’s been accepted under the same umbrella. I am a regular visitor and enjoy the sessions.”