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Read the stories of the winners and runners up of our 2015 OCN London Access to HE learner awards.

Matthew Clarke

Matthew Clarke

Winner: Outstanding Academic Achievement

Matthew began the OCN London Access to HE Diploma (Sports Science) at City and Islington College with very few formal qualifications and very low academic confidence. He achieved distinctions in all the graded units, whilst also studying for GCSE English and Maths, achieving a B and A in these respectively. He also produced an excellent final research project on his own personal area of interest - kayaking. He is now studying for a degree in PE and Sport and the University of Greenwich. He says: "If you had said a year ago that I would be studying at university I would never have believed you. After many years at school being told that I was lazy, to be given a high academic achievement award is just amazing. It’s given me a future I never dreamed of. My message to others is not to think ‘I can’t do this’ but to think ‘How well can I do this’."

His tutor Graham Condon says: “Matt’s work is outstanding. I have never known a student so determined to achieve but also with low confidence that he could. Over time Matt began to realise that the dyslexia, which had held him back previously, could be overcome and he could achieve a clean sweep of distinctions.”

Helen Duffy

Helen Duffy
Runner up: Outstanding Academic Achievement

Helen had experienced a lack of continuity in her education resulting in a loss of confidence.

However, she achieved distinctions in all of her graded assignments as part of her OCN London Access to HE Diploma (Humanities and Social Sciences) at Kingston College and gained a place at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) to study Philosophy and Politics. She says: “I came to Access viewing it as a box that I had to tick in order to get to where I wanted to be. But it was so much more than that. It helped me to build my confidence after years out of education. The sense of community and motivation on the course was astounding. The quality of teaching I received at Kingston also needs to be commended. Without doubt, it is the best teaching I have ever received. I strongly believe that mature students are undervalued in our current education system and I hope to help change that in the future.”

Her tutor Sue Brahams says: “In spite of her own initial doubts, it became clear to staff that Helen was an exceptional student. This was not just because of the outstanding quality of her work but also because of her commitment to college life and charity campaigning."


Florence Nakimuli-Mayambal

Florence Nakimuli-Mayambal

Winner: Outstanding commitment to study

Florence overcame considerable personal challenges throughout the year in order to complete the OCN London Access to HE Diploma (Humanities and Social Science) at Kingston College and gain a place at Queen Mary University of London to read English.

Florence says: “Being back in a classroom environment and receiving positive feedback from both my teachers and peers gave me back the self-esteem I had lost over the years. While the journey was an arduous one with many deep valleys to navigate, I can honestly say that completing the course was one of the most exultant moments of my life.” Florence managed to achieve distinctions in a large number of her assignments, many of which were considered of undergraduate standard in all subject specialisms.

Her tutor Sue Brahams says: "Florence demonstrated an extraordinary talent for sophisticated textual interpretation and critical commentary, often picking up on the nuances and subtleties of the writers’ ideas. In spite of her own health issues and family responsibilities, Florence had the ability to support other students with their work in a manner which was modest and unpretentious, derived in part from her own underestimation of her immense academic capabilities. She leaves Kingston College with the knowledge that she is destined for a successful career in higher education and is an inspiration and role model, not just for her son, but for those whose lives are transformed by the restorative power of the Access to HE route to self-improvement."

Daniyel Thomas

Daniyel Thomas
Runner up: Outstanding commitment to study

Daniyel, who has three young children, had to balance studying the OCN London Access to HE Diploma (Law) at South Thames College with managing the school run and voluntary work as a children’s football coach three times a week. He describes the past year as “one of the most testing times I have had to endure in my life.” Daniyel overcame major challenges to complete his studies. He completed his Access to HE Diploma with a very good grade profile and gained a place to study law.

His tutor Pip Murray says: "There was not a person who met Daniyel that didn’t take to his warm personality. He won over students, staff, managers and complete strangers. As the course drew to an end, his personal computer crashed, resulting in the loss of all his prepared work. But despite adversity, Daniyel always delivered, was always supportive and yet had the ability to challenge the obvious by digging deeper in order to see things from another perspective, helping his peers to learn more effectively."

Access to HE learners tell us about their experiences

Access champion

John Alimi

John Alimi completed an OCN London Diploma in Access to Engineering with flying colours at The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London.. An outstanding student, John earned merits and distinctions in each of his modules and was accepted onto a degree programme at Bradford University to study engineering where he was awarded a bursary to help with the cost of his fees. John will complete his degree in four years, spending one year in a paid industrial placement. 

TV sitcom actor gets place at King's College - Gabriel Thomson

Gabriel Thomson
TV sitcom actor gets place at King's College

Gabriel Thomson appeared regularly in the BBC TV sitcom 'My Family' as Michael Harper, but his life has now taken a new direction. Gabriel has just started (in September 2015) a degree course in philosophy at King’s College London. His intention is to develop a new career in the legal profession, specialising in human rights. Because of his acting career Gabriel had no A levels, so chose the Access to HE route instead, studying at City & Islington College. He says: "I got to the point in my life where I wanted to do something useful. Making people laugh is important, but I wanted to pursue a career that makes a difference and transfer my acting skills to performance in the courtroom. I am passionate about human rights and plan to take further qualifications after my degree to become a human rights barrister. I would encourage adult students that, because of Access courses, it's never too late to return to education and change your life."

Access champions - Marc Evans

Marc Evans
Marc’s courage and achievements wins Adult Learners Week award

Marc Evans, who has achieved a lifelong ambition of getting a university place, won a regional Adult Learners Week award for overcoming hardship.

During his early years Marc experienced a string of setbacks that would have challenged anyone less determined. He lived in care until the age of seven, was sent to live in Nigeria and then to a state boarding school in Norfolk. When he was 15 he ran away from the school to live with his father in South London, but the relationship was extremely difficult and he also witnessed seeing his mother become homeless. As a result, Marc failed his GCSEs. For a time he was homeless himself. But eventually he found work within the leisure industry and for the police.

Marc wanted to return to education and work with vulnerable young people, so gained experience as a volunteer at Action for Children and for Hackney Young Carers Project. He also enrolled on a Diploma in Youth Work Practice at City and Islington College, continuing on to an OCN London Access to HE Diploma.

He is now studying part-time for a BA Honours degree in Social Pedagogy, Education and Youth Practice at Canterbury Christ Church University. Marc’s ambition is to work with vulnerable young people. He says: “I want to make a difference and to help improve the life chances of young people" 

Access champions - Pawel Huszcza

Bernadette Van Gaalen
Bright future at Goldsmiths for Bernadette

Becoming homeless just before embarking on a college course at the age of 27 might have led many to give up before they even started. But Bernadette Van Gaalen was determined to gain some qualifications and get a place at university.

Anxious about her ability to learn and unsure whether she could ever make it to university, Bernadette had already failed to complete another course due to child care constraints. Nonetheless, she enrolled on an OCN London Access to HE Diploma in Social Science at City and Islington College’s Centre for Lifelong Learning. She says: “The first few months of the course were hard for me, with my home life in disarray. I was attending class from a hostel and found it extremely difficult to concentrate fully on my studies. However, I quickly began to notice through class discussions that many of my classmates were also facing difficult challenges in their lives and there were an array of different backgrounds which helped ease my sense of alienation.”

After completing the course, Bernadette is now set to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Goldsmith’s University..

She says: “This course is a special means of getting you where you want to be. You will experience teaching that reaches beyond the classroom and changes your ideas and enhances your life opportunities in a really a short space of time. For me, it has given me resolve and a true belief in my ability to achieve as a student, woman and mother.

Access champions - Louisa Wilson

Louisa Wilson
Louisa was discouraged from science, but is now studying at UCL

Louisa Wilson was told at school that she should give up studying science. But she ignored this advice and is now celebrating gaining a place to study a degree in Applied Medical Science at University College London - one of the world’s top universities.

Louisa was offered the place after returning to education and completing an OCN London Access to HE Diploma in Medicine and Medical Biosciences at City and Islington College’s Centre for Applied Sciences.

She said: “I was pushed away from science in places I had studied before, but studying at City and Islington gave me the belief, direction and support to achieve what I have.”

With a young family, returning to education involved a lot of worries, notably how to afford it. But the 24+ loan gave her the reassurance and motivation to succeed.

Asked what advice she would give to other mums, she said: ''To be able to set that example for your children is empowering and is something that nobody can ever take from you. Find what you love, and go for it! “

Access champions - George Zambas

George Zambas
George left school with one GCSE - now set to study medicine at university

Former bar worker George Zambas left school with just one GCSE – a grade D in French – and is now celebrating gaining a university place to study medicine.

He decided to become a doctor after working in administration in the NHS, but needed qualifications before he had any chance of being considered for a university place. His dream to study medicine came true after he passed an OCN London Access to HE Diploma in Medicine and Medical Biosciences at City and Islington College.

George struggled with education as a teenager and left school to work in a number of jobs from bar work, to retail management and administration. He said: “I realised that I had not given myself a good enough crack at education when I was younger. I had reached the ceiling when it came to working in administration and I wanted to see what I was capable of.” He was so determined to succeed that he retook his GCSE Maths at an all-girls school.

George will now take up an offer at Brighton and Sussex Medical School and intends to become a GP or a urologist. 

Access champions - Pawel Huszcza

Pawel Huszcza

“Access to ICT became quite literally my ticket to the future. It opened for me a way to a new career and allowed me to enter into the software engineering industry. It seems to me that we here in the UK don’t always appreciate great opportunities given to us by the British educational system - often to its most disadvantaged consumers. If it were not for Access to Higher Education and help of Someone High above me - I would never find myself in this place.

The Access to Higher Education course is a great opportunity for many young people to relatively easily change their career paths in our modern and dynamic society. It is something that is so greatly missed for instance in the Polish educational system or educational systems of many other countries. It is a great project and a reason to be proud of British education.”

Access champions - Lisa Sayers

Lisa Sayers

“At the age of 26, returning to education was a daunting prospect. More so having never really applied myself or excelled in my previous education. Initially I found the classroom a very strange and intimidating place to be, but as I got to know my fellow class mates and lecturers it soon became a safe environment where I could freely contribute to class discussions.

I found the Access course got off to a manageable start; this allowed me time to settle in and develop my organisational and time management skills in order to meet deadlines. By Christmas the course was moving at a much faster pace, although this was intense and stressful, with the support of my lecturers and my own self-discipline I was able to deal with the workload.

Having successfully completed the course achieving a Distinction grade in all of my assignments and securing a place at City University, I can see how much I have gained from the experience. I have developed so much as a person as a result of Access and gained a lot more self-confidence in my ability.

I would whole-heartedly recommend the Access course to anyone wanting to go back into further education. If you are willing to apply yourself then the possibilities are endless.”

Access champions - Imogene Edwards

Imogene Edwards

“Playing Up gave me the confidence I needed to pursue the career I’ve always wanted to, as well as the qualification. It was a safe environment for me to be able to learn and grow, challenge myself and explore my creativity.

I made friends with not only my fellow students but also my tutors and the assistants who believed and invested in me. The support they gave me was incomparable to any support I've ever received throughout my education. I trusted them and was driven by them to achieve. I cannot thank them enough. So many doors were opened for me and the opportunities I was given have been life changing.”

Access champions - Moubajel Lehmann

Moubajel Lehmann

Mouby was featured in the summer edition of Despatches after she received the Adult Learners’ Week Award. She is now studying International Relations at SOAS.

“I am so excited to be in a position in my life where I can work hard at something I enjoy and see the future of what this success will mean for me".