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Shining a light on community heroes

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Published on 12 February 2024

 L-R Teaching apprentices Lisa Richardson (Cedars Trust College), Kate Birtles (The Sue Headley Nursery School), Jean Metcalfe (Springboard North East), Kelly Lawrence (Coquet Park First School) and Lee Shillito (Springboard North East) with their awards
L-R Teaching apprentices Lisa Richardson (Cedars Trust College), Kate Birtles (The Sue Headley Nursery School), Jean Metcalfe (Springboard North East), Kelly Lawrence (Coquet Park First School) and Lee Shillito (Springboard North East) with their awards

It was a real celebration of community spirit as the University of Sunderland gathered together to recognise their apprentices – both past and present – who have gone above and beyond to make an exceptional contribution to their communities.

The Community Heroes Awards, which took place at the University’s St Peter’s Campus on Friday (February 9) as part of National Apprenticeship Week, was also an opportunity to acknowledge the apprentices’ commitment to enhancing their knowledge and skills, embodying the spirit of service, and positively impacting the fields of Education, Social Work, Community and Youth Work.  

Apprentices and employers from the following organisations attended the event: 

  • Newcastle City Council

  • Coquet Park First School

  • Springboard North East

  • North East Youth

  • Creative Youth Opportunities

  • Bright Futures North East

  • The Sue Hedley Nursery School

  • Cedars Trust

  • Young Asian Voices

  • Hexham Priory

Professor Lynne McKenna MBE, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Society at the University of Sunderland, said: “I am delighted that apprentices from across the Faculty of Education and Society have been recognised at this awards event.

“As our provision meets the needs of the public sector, which is currently experiencing issues with recruitment and retention, it is increasingly important that we continue to offer alternative routes into these professions. 

“I am delighted that our newly introduced Community and Youth Work Degree Apprenticeship was awarded the special group award and incredibly pleased that five of the awards went to our teaching apprenticeships. This is testament to our approach to partnership engagement and partnership working with our colleagues in the public sector. What an accolade for the Faculty.”

Sarah Beck, Academic Director of Apprenticeships at the University, said: “Our apprenticeships in Teaching, Social Work and Community and Youth Work are so important as they enable a range of organisations to develop their staff to fill skills gaps in these vital areas of practice, but also give apprentices – who often have years of practical experience – to gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to progress in their chosen career. 

“So many of our apprentices make a positive difference, both within their organisation and the community they serve, so it is difficult to pick out individuals. However, the achievements we celebrated in this ceremony were really inspiring and gave us an opportunity to recognise apprentices who have made a particular contribution, demonstrating dedication, creativity and resourcefulness – they are great advocates for our apprenticeship programmes. 

“We also gave a special group award to our very first cohort of Community and Youth Work apprentices. The University of Sunderland is one of the first providers in the country to offer this particular apprenticeship and it is great to see that this group are already making the most of the opportunity.”

Former apprentice Sheryl Johnson studied an Integrated Degree Apprenticeship in Social Work at the University – and the programme proved life-changing, not just for Sheryl but the community she now serves. 

Having been inspired by the gruelling hospital treatment she received throughout her childhood, Sheryl initially had her sights set on becoming a doctor. 

However, despite top A-level grades after finishing sixth form, Sheryl, who lives with cystic fibrosis, arthritis, and Type 1 diabetes, had a change of heart, wanted to earn money and opted to go straight into work.

She began a job with Durham County Council in 2008 as a social work assistant, on the Disabled Children’s team. The plan was to stay just a couple of years, but by 2013 she had moved up the ranks, becoming a reviewing officer in Darlington.

Building her skills and knowledge, her work became so aligned to a fully trained social worker that her manager put her forward for the Integrated Degree Apprenticeship in Social Work at Sunderland where she could achieve the necessary qualifications.

And, after three years of juggling full-time work with study, alongside daily physiotherapy treatment, monthly hospital appointments, insulin injections, anti-biotics injected into a port-a-cath in her chest, and managing retinopathy, a complication of the eye due to diabetes, she graduated with a First-Class degree in 2022.

As a result of a University placement in her final year, Sheryl landed a full time job as a social worker for the Looked After Children team with Darlington Borough Council.

“I absolutely love my role,” Sheryl, 35, from County Durham, said. 

“It is hard work and stressful at times, but the direct work with the children and being part of the amazing things they achieve day after day, with our support, makes it all worthwhile.”

Shortly after starting her new role, Sheryl hit the books once again to study a Master’s degree in Inequality and Society at the University, which she completed in September 2023, graduating with a distinction. 

On why she would recommend studying the Social Work Apprenticeship at Sunderland, Sheryl, said: “I feel this is the best route into social work because apprentices already have hands on experience of social care as well as the underpinning values, knowledge and skills to become a social worker – nothing is too much of a surprise.

“That said, what the apprenticeship did give me was the knowledge, understanding and importance of research, theory and reflection and how to apply these in practice. Throughout the apprenticeship, I always had support available from both the University and my employer which made me feel valued and I felt it significantly contributed in preparing me for my career in social work. 

“The combination of social work experience as an unqualified worker alongside the academic teaching, placements and support within the apprenticeship, gave me the perfect cocktail of experience, knowledge and skills to succeed in my career as a social worker and I would not hesitate to recommend this route to anyone.”

Sheryl, whose long term goal is to eventually teach social work, believes apprenticeships are crucial in developing skilled social workers. 

She said: “In my opinion, being a good social worker requires both life experience and work experience, as this combination supports us to understand the aspects of difference within society which contribute to inequality and vulnerability. 

“In understanding these differences, social workers are able to work with people to empower them to achieve social change, development and cohesion. The apprenticeship route reflects this combination of life and work experience, developing skilled social workers who will go on to make positive change.”

Sheryl admits that the first year of the degree was a challenge, but by her second year, she’d found her stride.

So, what is Sheryl’s advice to anyone thinking of studying a Social Work Apprenticeship?

“You need to be committed not only to doing your job but to also coming home and working on your assignments,” she said.

“It is three years of hard work, but it is definitely worth it. The apprenticeship has not only given me a qualification to practice as a social worker and the privilege to be part of so many children's journeys, but it has also made me a better person and opened so many doors for which I will be forever grateful.”

Dr Diane Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University, said: “It was a pleasure working with Sheryl during her time on the Social Work Apprenticeship. She excelled academically and came back to support teaching of research skills whilst in her final year of study and also during her first year in qualified social work practice.  

“The Social Work Apprenticeship provides invaluable opportunities for employers to ‘grow their own’ social workers which is particularly important in a persistently challenging recruitment and retention context faced by employers. The Social Work apprentices are usually very experienced social care employees who bring a wealth of experience to the classroom and are wonderful to teach.”

Since launching in 2016 with just a handful of employers, the University’s degree apprenticeship scheme has grown year on year. Now partnering with more than 100 organisations, the University is currently educating and training more than 930 apprentices working on programmes from Level 3 to degree level across a range of sectors and job roles.

To find out more about Higher and Degree Apprenticeships at the University of Sunderland click here.