Her lifelong love of learning, and her passion for setting young people on the right track has seen Irene pass her knowledge on to the next generation. Just a few years off retirement, there’s no slowing Irene down, and as she says herself, ‘you’re never too old to learn.’
Hi Irene! Please introduce yourself.
My name is Irene Webber. I’ve worked for the Youth Engagement Participation Service (YEPS) at Rhondda Cynon Taf council since July 2020.
I initially started as a youth engagement participation officer. It’s like a generic youth worker, doing everything from 1:1 to group work to delivering training.
And then in May 2021, we had a restructure within the company, and we could apply for different roles. I applied for a transitional support worker, and I’ve been doing that since then.
Are you enjoying it?
Yes, I love it. I liked the first role, and I’d previously been with the Council from 2002 to 2005 on a 3-year fixed term contract. I left and went to a previous employer and then came back and wished I’d done it years before.
That sounds great. So, tell us about the apprenticeship you’re taking with us.
Currently I’m on an apprenticeship for Information, Advice and Guidance Level 4.
And I’m enjoying it – I thoroughly enjoy learning. Always have. Both employers I worked for in the last 20 years have encouraged lifelong learning, and I really think it’s a good thing. It motivates me, inspires me, and I just think it’s better for the young people – the more knowledge I have, the more I can pass on.
It gives you a structure and a focus when you’re working with the young people. I’ve always action-planned with young people, but I’ve found that as I’m setting targets and goals with them, it makes me think more clearly. I think I do that a lot better and more efficiently since being enrolled on the apprenticeship.
And what appealed to you about your role with the Council? What was it that made you think ‘I’m going to go and work for the council again’?
Because I previously worked for them, I knew that the council was an excellent employer. They’re very understanding of their employee’s needs. They’ve got excellent health and well-being support in place – always have. They’ve got excellent benefits, but I enjoy the role because it’s working with young people; you work with the most disadvantaged young people in this role and I feel that, with my support, I’m making a little bit of a difference to their lives, hopefully.
Has the apprenticeship improved how you do your role? Can you see the parallels between what you’re learning on the course and then putting it into practice day-to-day with the young people?
Yeah, I think the biggest difference is having clear guidelines, putting boundaries in place, and setting targets for the young people.
It makes me focus more as soon as I go in with the young person. I’m thinking, ‘what action plan am I putting in place here?’ I agree the action plan with the young person too because on the course, that’s where you learn that the young person needs to engage in this plan for it to work. And it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time now.
That makes sense. I heard about you via Betsan and Jess from the Essential Skills team. So, what was it like working with them?
I enjoyed the communication qualification that I did with them, thoroughly enjoyed it. We had to do a presentation and speak about a subject. I run a netball club – it was a community project and being a youth and community worker, I just felt it was apt to talk about that project. It was my baby. It was myself and a friend who set it up. It was hugely successful. 47 young children, young girls playing on a regular basis, and I mean regular – training three nights a week, and playing all weekend.
It was a huge commitment but in my 40 years of being a youth worker, I think it’s the best project I ever worked on. I did it as a volunteer. It was the best piece of youth work I’ve ever done because we engaged with those 47 girls on a regular basis. And they all tell me, even now, they’re 38, 40 some of them, and they say, ‘without the netball club, I don’t know what my life would have been. Netball focused me, gave me structure. I had to be fit.’
They were Welsh champions, so they were totally committed. They played for their school. They played for the club. Then they played for county, played for Wales, and they won the tournament.
So, it was a massive commitment and the young people got so much out of it – they all say it changed their lives. It was fabulous so speaking about it on the course was easy for me because this is my passion.
That’s an amazing story. To have that focus in in a young person’s life, it just makes such a huge, huge difference, doesn’t it? I heard that your presentation was amazing so congrats on that! Were you learning with other people or by yourself?
No, there’s a group. There’s four of us from the same team, and there’s ten in the team. Because we were all fairly new to the role, four of us enrolled on the course. Initially, we were having study groups and working together. But obviously due to annual leave, sickness, different things, we don’t meet so much as a group now because we’re on individual tasks. But we’re always on the end of the phone for each other.
I think it’s been part of our bonding because initially joining the team, I didn’t know anybody.
I thought I’d not fit into this team as well as I wanted to, but I did find that within a month of joining the TSW course, it gave us that bond together. I honestly think it was part of the glue that sticks us together, because I feel closer to the others who are on the course than the rest of the team.
It’s almost like you have a little micro community! And how does your employer support you while you’re studying?
Yes. They have supported me greatly. My line manager, Nicola, is all about learning and the council are in general anyway. Nicola’s given me time to study, and she allows us time to come to TSW days to meet with Lisa, my assessor. Whatever we need, no questions, we just have the autonomy to book it in and they really, really support it.
Nicola is so supportive. She’s a marvellous line manager.
It’s amazing to have that support in place as well, isn’t it?
It takes all the pressure off you because when I worked with the previous company, I wasn’t given that luxury. I was allowed to meet my assessor during work time, but the actual course content time I had to do outside of work, which is a big commitment. It’s finding that time. Even on this course, I do some work in my own time, obviously, but I don’t feel the pressure that there’s so much to do because I know I can say to Nicola, ‘look, I got an assignment I want to concentrate on. I’ve worked late a couple of nights to clear my caseload. Can I have an afternoon?’ And it takes the pressure off. It’s fabulous.
And what motivates you to learn, Irene?
I think credibility and confidence. I always have enjoyed learning. I do feel like it gives you that self-worth and makes you feel better about yourself.
I think it helps you with your job. When I’m working with the young people, they say, ‘you’re knowledgeable,’ but I put that down to the courses that I’ve done throughout my life. I joined the council in summer 2020 and I don’t know how many short courses I’ve done with them. It’s up in the in the 30s, I think alongside doing this as well.
I just think it’s good for you. You’re never too old to learn anything. My philosophy is you learn something every day. When I’m not on a course, I look in a dictionary and I pick 10 words that I don’t know the meaning of. And then I learn those words, and I do the same thing again tomorrow.
That’s a lovely thing to do. It’s something to keep your brain working when you’re not on a specific learning course.
That’s right, and it’s something I’ve always done. When I was in school, I was an average speller but I wanted to be good at it. So every day I picked 10 words in the dictionary to learn how to spell. And I just think that you should do something everyday to stretch your brain and to learn, because it makes you feel good. I think it keeps you young at heart because it gives you confidence. It makes you feel good, and it makes you feel better about yourself.
And do you think taking the apprenticeship has changed your life in some way? That could be a small change, like you’ve improved the processes in work, or it could be a bigger thing like improving your confidence as you were talking about then?
I think both. Like I said, I put the action plans and different things in place. It makes me more focused in work because I’ve got more knowledge to pass on to the young people. It makes me feel good and I think if you feel good, you feel confident. Then you’re better at your job as well.
Makes a massive difference, doesn’t it? And what advice would you give to people thinking of taking up an apprenticeship?
Everybody’s going to be apprehensive, but I don’t think it’s fear, it’s more just apprehension. You’re like, ‘What if I can’t do it? What if I can’t finish it? I feel stupid.’ I’d say put all those negative thoughts away, feel the fear and do it anyway. Give it a go. The support is out there, the assessors are helping you every step of the way.
I know that Lisa gives me all the clear instructions that I need. But sometimes if I’m a little bit stuck, I can pick up the phone, I can give her an email, she answers the question straight away. The stumbling block is gone. You’ve passed that and you’ve moved on. There’s no need to be afraid because there’s someone out there to support you all the way through, even in your company. Your colleagues will support you, your manager will support you, and nobody is there to help you fail. They all want you to succeed, so do it anyway.
I think it’s a wonderful thing and I would go for it. I tell anybody, go for it. Try it.
What are your career aspirations? What’s the next step for you?
If I was honestly truthful, I should say retirement but that’s not what I plan to do. I love my job. I love working for the council so much that I plan to stay in work. I’ve already asked my line manager, and she’s asked her manager, and they’ve both supported me and said yes, I can stay on later and no doubt about it. Allie, I probably will be studying until the day I finish.
But even when the time comes, and I say it’s time to hang up my boots, I’m not going to retire because I’m going to go into voluntary work, and I’m going to do further learning and further courses. I think learning keeps your brain active. Your brain is active, you stay younger, and you live longer. So that’s the way I feel about it. I can’t see the day when I’m not learning, and I can’t see the day when I’m not working either. I don’t want to think about it, and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.
It sounds like you really enjoy it. So, to go would be a shame. You bring so much enthusiasm to the role as well. Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?
I’d definitely want to say to any young person or any adult, please go and learn. Do it, feel happier and go and do it because it’s fabulous.
Thank you so much for chatting to us, Irene!