Meet the 68-year-old, Bass-Playing Microbiologist Inspiring Adults to Learn in Blaenau Gwent
Rocking teacher Ian Howells doesn’t own a mobile phone or use e-mail and has a magnifying glass to read - and his classes have a 100% success rate.
A 68-year-old bass guitar-playing former scientist has won a major award after helping hundreds of people in Ebbw Vale to gain qualifications.
Part-time adult education tutor Ian Howells has been changing lives in the town since 2001, and his commitment to the learning of others has just earned him national recognition.
The Inspire! Tutor Awards celebrate the achievements of exceptional tutors and mentors in Wales who have shown outstanding passion and commitment to encourage, support and teach other adult learners to pursue their goals and transform their lives, whether it’s in their community or the workplace.
Run by Learning and Work Institute, with support from the Welsh Government, they reward outstanding individuals whose commitment, knowledge and communication skills have given adult learners the tools to transform their lives.
Ian, who has a serious visual impairment which means he often needs a magnifying glass to read, tutors at Ebbw Vale Learning Action Centre, helping people aged 16 to 84 improve their skills in English and Maths.
Aneurin Leisure runs three centres across South Wales, offering education courses within the community.
Many of Ian’s learners on his 10 courses ranging from entry level in English and Maths to higher level GCSE Maths have had to overcome barriers to learning – such as drug and alcohol issues and poor mental and physical health.
Last year, 100% of his Essential Skills learners earned Agored Cymru qualifications, with all of his Higher Maths students progressing to PGCE courses after scoring As and Bs, and since Ian started, the centre has launched a foundation level class to help learners gain a Maths GCSE.
“I had an 80-year-old who didn’t know the alphabet,” said Ian, who lives in the South Wales town.
“By the end, he could write his name, which was a major thing for him as that’s all he’d wanted to do. Some people come here with no confidence, many have been out of work for years, and they go on to get a part-time job, then a full-time job, some have become nurses. I’ve had people who kept failing their Maths GCSE and they pass it here and go on to get the career they’ve always wanted.”
Ian discovered adult education after leaving his career as a microbiologist. He studied Microbiology at Aberystwyth University before spending years working for British Steel at Llanwern Steel Works.
After leaving science to work in fashion, aged 52, he completed his PGCE course in adult education at Coleg Gwent. He said: “I didn’t plan to become a teacher but it was the only course they had on!”
Ian finished the course over two years, attending twice a week while balancing running two clothing stores (including The Bomb on Commercial Street, Tredegar) and playing in his heavy metal band, Ruff Handfull [COR] several nights a week. He set up the band with friends when he was 23, and they had a Valleys following in the 70s and recently reformed just 18 months ago. Now his students go along to watch him play his Zoot Funkmeister in pubs and clubs across South Wales.
Inspire! Adult Tutor nominations were invited for ‘outstanding individuals’ who give ‘over and above’ what is expected of them, from areas including higher education, further education, the workplace, community education and schools.
“Life experience makes you a great teacher,” said Ian, who’s been married to Jan for 42 years.
He doesn’t own a mobile phone or use e-mail, he said: “I prefer to speak to people face-to-face. I’ve always believed in learning and I think it never ends. Learning can give you a job and a career, but more than that, it keeps your mind busy and alive.”
Ian, who’s worked with Victory Outreach UK to tutor people with alcohol and drug dependencies, added: “You’ve got to stay excited. Students can sense it and it’s infectious. If someone has a problem with their learning, I love finding a way to solve it.”
In his spare time, Ian, who cites the botany and zoology teacher at Ebbw Vale Grammar School, Idwal Davies, as his own inspirational tutor, spends hours devouring Maths books. His sessions are often full, and Ian can be teaching up to 30 students at a time, with many classes spilling into the cafe at the centre on James Street.
He continued: “I never turn a student away. The hardest part of adult learning is making that first step. I know what a big thing it is for them to walk through that door - if I asked them to come back next week, they probably wouldn’t. We make room. I love teaching in Ebbw Vale. People here are friendly, genuine and helpful. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
Karen Bennett, Ian’s manager at Aneurin Leisure, who nominated him, said: “Ian has changed the lives of hundreds of learners and his success rate is exceptional. He puts in so many hours, much of it unpaid, and I’ve never known him to be late or ill. The diversity in the class is amazing and all learners are treated according to their needs.
“Ian’s wide range of teaching methods allows learners who have a learning disability to access mainstream classes and ultimately gain the same level of qualifications as other learners. He’s amazing. I really don’t know what I’d do if he retired.”
Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education, said: “Good mentors are important at all stages of our lives. The role of an adult tutor comes with additional challenges in helping someone returning to education achieve their goals.
“The Inspire! Tutor Awards are a great way to thank people like Ian whose skills, time and commitment continue to support so many journeys in learning, often with life-changing results.”
David Hagendyk, Director for Wales at Learning and Work Institute, said: “Behind every successful adult learner are the tutors, lecturers and support staff who work every day to help individuals unlock their potential and fulfil their ambitions.
“The Inspire! Tutor Awards are a fantastic opportunity to recognise the excellent work of the individual winners, as well as to thank everyone working in our colleges, universities, schools, workplaces and communities for their hard-work and dedication.”
The Inspire! Tutor Awards are funded by The Welsh Government and the European Social Fund and organised by the Learning and Work Institute Wales.
For more information about adult learning or becoming a tutor, call 0800 028 4844.