I love hearing other people’s stories of triumph against adversity, particularly involving education and technology changing people’s lives. I got a DSc from University of Kent at Canterbury Cathedral last year and was honoured to be invited to present the computer science department awards to students before the cathedral ceremony. Alan Gore won two of the prizes and his lovely mum Jan contacted me after hearing my speech about how education and technology had helped me to bring my family out of poverty. When I heard Alan’s story I asked Jan if Alan would write a blogpost that I could share about his education and life journey. Here it is below. What an amazing, inpsiring man with such a supportive mum. Enjoy.
I’m writing this on a plane to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle where I will be taking a break with my partner, a research physicist studying the Northern Lights. I’m 28 years old, a recent graduate from the University of Kent, where I collected my degree at the same award ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral where Sue Black was awarded an honorary doctorate.
I was excited to meet Sue and hear her story that day, partly because of her work about Bletchley Park (a place I’ve enjoyed visiting multiple times whilst living and working in Milton Keynes) but also because of what she represents: someone who, despite adversity and an unconventional route through education, has achieved great success in a field that still feels dominated by a narrow part of society.
Whilst I cannot claim to have gone through anything like her experiences, I’m also a mature student who didn’t follow the traditional route to University. If you’d asked me 10 years ago where I expected to be now, it certainly wouldn’t have been here; at that time I already felt that I was “too late” to achieve my goals of going to university and entering the tech industry. I’m writing this in the hope that my story might serve to give some hope to someone in a similar situation.
Throughout my school years I listened to the mantra that at every stage (SATS, GCSE, A Levels) you had to work hard as this was the only chance to progress and do well in the next stage, all the way to university. My parents divorced in my early teens and, perhaps in an attempt to have control over something in my life, I stopped attending school. I left school with only a single GCSE with my plans of university shattered. I didn’t have the five GCSEs needed to get to college or even to get a basic job. My school wouldn’t allow me to re-sit them because of how little I’d attended. I was “too late” to change the path I’d chosen by not attending.
The following year I sat the 4 additional GCSEs I needed for college with the National Extension College, a distance learning charity that at that time would take my mother’s stockpile of Tesco Clubcard Vouchers as payment! After this I started on a BTEC IT Diploma and did well, but ultimately dropped out again, feeling inadequate when compared with my peers.
By my late teens I felt hopeless, with no chance of work or education. I was struggling with depression and anxiety, as well as trying to come to terms with my sexuality. I retreated from friends and family and I continued drifting like this for years, spending most of my time online, trying to escape a day-to-day life in which I felt I’d failed and was too late to change things. I was forced into change by my father falling into financial difficulties. Facing the reality of him losing his home and supported by treatment for my depression, I started looking for work.
Eventually I found a role as a supermarket delivery driver; the work was hard with shifts often exceeding 12 hours, but I enjoyed it and did well, progressing to a driver coach/instructor role and then supervising the department. I learned how to handle everything from rescuing vans stuck under bridges to answering irate phone calls from customers and drivers, whilst trying to help someone find something on the shop floor. I regained some confidence and my Mum suggested maybe I could give education another try.
I enrolled in an Access to Computing course at the local adult college. Access to Higher Education Diplomas are available for anyone who hasn’t already completed an A-level or equivalent qualification; they pack the equivalent of 3 A-levels into a few days a week over the course of a year. They’re designed so that on completion students can go on to university, and the majority of universities accept them. The Access qualification was hard work; I balanced a 30-hour working week with a similar amount of studying, but it paid off. I received a distinction (equivalent to 3 A*) which meant I qualified for scholarship funding at Kent. I received offers from all 5 of the universities I applied to (Aberdeen, Cardiff, Kent, Lancaster and Stirling); the only limitation I faced when applying for Computing degrees was the lack of a maths A Level.
Going to University, I was apprehensive, I’d be 6 years older than most of the people I’d be living and studying with. I chose a 4-year programme with a year in industry, which meant by the time I graduated I’d be nearing 30. Was this too late? What’s more, many of the people there would have sat dozens of exams over the course of their education, whilst I’d sat almost none.
Exams certainly proved a challenge, as did my lack of maths knowledge. However I found I did well, especially in programming where my Access qualification had given me some excellent tutelage, as opposed to most of my classmates who’d done next to none at school. When it came to applying for work I was similarly worried about the gaps in my CV and history. I also found this wasn’t the barrier I expected. At the end of my first year, I secured a paid summer placement with the Bank of England, followed by a year’s paid placement with a firm in Milton Keynes whom I now work for.
University wasn’t plain sailing. My mother was diagnosed with cancer (thankfully now in remission) towards the end of my first year and I found I often suffered from “imposter syndrome” throughout my degree. However, I was helped by a variety of amazing people, from the friends I met in halls in first year, through to university career advisors, managers on placements and of course my partner. I graduated with a first class honours degree in Computer Science and won multiple awards, securing a job with my placement company in Milton Keynes, where I now work (and live on a 55ft narrowboat!).
As a white male from a middle-class background I write this with no illusions that my relative success means that the same opportunities I had are available to all. The data around education and employment in the tech industry, especially for those from “non-conventional” backgrounds makes for difficult reading (1) (2). I’m immensely grateful to all those who supported me and very much aware that without them and the academic options available, I would not be where I am now.
I hope that my story might show that it’s never too late to change course and return to education. Despite an education system that drills into children that they must do well in the next exam or else they’re locked out of progressing, it is possible to return to education years later. It might require more effort, but it’s doable.
Furthermore it’s vital we keep these routes open for people and promote them so that students don’t unwittingly limit their potential. Since I studied for my Access qualification, funding for further education has been cut by around half a billion pounds; the result of this is that adults over 24+ have to pay (by student loan or otherwise) for any Level 3 or Level 4 qualifications and this has led to a marked reduction (31% according to a government report) in the number of people taking such qualifications. People are (rightly or wrongly) put off even starting on the journey to university by the student debt that now also accompanies our degree programmes.
I hope that in time our government will come to recognise the value of such funding and reverse some of those cuts. In the meantime I will do all I can to support people going on a similar journey to mine, be it through talking and writing about it or helping provide some of the opportunities I was given, for example by setting up paid internship programmes.
Written by Alan Gore