Maesteg ex-miner wins inspirational award for dedication to learning later in life

Ex-miner John Gates has travelled the world inspiring others to continue learning. Credit: Mike Griffiths

A retired miner has inspired a global audience following his later in life return to education.

82-year-old John Gates has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Inspire! Award for his dedication to learning and contributions to education later in life. 

John who is from Bridgend, had left school with no qualifications, following in the footsteps of his family of miners and beginning his career at Coegnant colliery.

He said: "If somebody would have said to me the first day I walked on to the site at 15 years old that through education I would travel the world and speak at conferences along side professors, I would never have believed it."

A bid experience in school knocked his confidence. John said: "I asked about doing the 11+ exam and the teacher said I wasn’t included 'cause I wasn’t good enough, and that destroyed me.

"It took me twenty-odd years to get over that and to get back into education".

It took John around twenty years to build the confidence to get back into education. Credit: ITV Archive National Library

Mr Gates worked underground for 19 years before deciding to apply for a position in a training centre as a first-aid trainer, that's when things began to change for him.

He said: “I studied a basic skills course for two years and realised that I could do anything I put my mind to."

John went on to get three O Levels at Bridgend College and a qualification in Computing he says that allowed him "to keep working for another five years during the miners’ strikes" and he "stayed on as a training manager for other collieries when the training centre closed".

John began working at Coegnant Colliery at a young age, working his way up from trainee colliery to fitter, to first aider and ‘rescue man’. Credit: ITV Archive National Library

Made redundant at the age of 51, the Maesteg local turned his attention towards reinventing himself through education and advocating for others in his community.

His time at the training centre inspired him to study a Humanities degree at the Open University.

His inspirational tale has led him to travel the world, recounting his story at the Houses of Parliament, and being interviewed by the Princess of Sweden. 

In 2000, John gave a speech welcoming international visitors to the Millennium Dome in London. It was here that his path crossed with that of the Australian Minister for Education. Following this, John was invited to Australia to talk about his experience of redundancy in light of the pits and steel mill closures. 

Since then, John has addressed audiences at conferences from Brazil to Norway, as well as twice in the Houses of Parliament and several times in the Senedd as a global learning ambassador and the Scottish Parliament.

John said: “I take a lot of pleasure from talking to and inspiring others. The most important thing about my story is how much I’ve enjoyed learning. Education is an adventure; when you start down that path you never know where it’ll take you.

“It’s taken me around the world and to places that I could have never afforded to go to, but the greatest benefit of all is confidence. Doors open and shut, but when a door opens, I have the confidence to walk through it.”

Recently, John has involved himself in male mental and physical health charity, Men’s Shed, becoming their chairman. 

An idea which was initially introduced in Australia to tackle the number of suicides in the outback, John and his peers noticed a similar spike in Bridgend and decided to turn the veteran’s club into a Men’s Shed.

He said: "We meet every Thursday for a cup of tea, lunch, and to chat about various projects and issues. It’s also an opportunity for men to develop their skills and to feel a part of their community.

“Since its introduction, we have started to work with Parc Prison. There’s now a Men’s Shed in the prison itself that’s been accepted under the same umbrella. I am a regular visitor and enjoy the sessions.”

Men's Shed gives an opportunity for men to develop their skills and to feel a part of their community. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

John said: "People think that you have to be clever to get on, you don’t. What you need is first of all the desire to learn and to change. But, then the determination to carry it through. 

"A lot of people ask me what did I gain out of all this work that I’ve done and the biggest thing is confidence. The confidence I didn't have in school I now have.

"I am now not afraid to speak to 1500 people, I will share the top table with professors, I am not afraid to put my point forward and to put forward the need of the learner and not the educators.

"I had been under the mistaken belief if you don’t try you can’t fail, not realising that if I didn’t try I couldn’t succeed either."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…