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Ammar Mirza wants the North East to be the most learned region…by December

In August, acclaimed North East entrepreneur Ammar Mirza launched his latest project, The Big Learn. It’s another opportunity for Ammar, awarded the CBE in 2014 for his efforts supporting the region’s business community, to promote the universal benefits of lifelong learning — the importance of which, he says, “cannot be overstated.” Working in collaboration with the PIE (Primary Inspiration through Enterprise) Charity, which he helped establish in 2013, and Learning Curve Group (LCG), The Big Learn aims to sign up 50,000 workers in five months, to a selection of fully funded and accredited courses. Ammar explains the rationale behind the project:

“Often, when people gain employment, their personal and professional development stops. Most SMEs, for example, don’t have a training budget. Any support available to employees is usually invested in getting them to complete compliance rather than development related qualifications and involves incurring the cost of giving staff days off or backfilling their absence. Signing up to The Big Learn means employers are gaining access to a variety of practical qualifications which they can offer employees to help improve their skills, their professional and personal approach to work, and ultimately their careers.”

The Big Learn is aimed at the North of England and tied into the broader objective of eradicating the North-South divide. Ammar admits the target of acquiring 50,000 learners across the North East, North West and North Yorkshire is ambitious given the short time frame but he’s confident that businesses, once they understand the benefits, will see joining The Big Learn is a “no brainer.” As well as the courses being funded and NCFE accredited, employees don’t have to worry about managing their time between doing a job and completing qualifications as they’re able to study when is most convenient for them. Beyond registering, the involvement of the employer is minimal, and the cost non-existent.

All types of companies (public, private, SME, blue-chip) and all pay grades from CEO down can sign up.  Employees are free to choose the courses they wish to study, which range from specific training areas such as lean organisation management, customer service and leading a team as well as “universal” programmes including mental health awareness, managing difficult behaviour, and equality and diversity. These Level 2 courses (between a GCSE and an A Level) are taught through distance learning with an assigned tutor and workbooks are completed either online or in print. Significantly, there are no restrictions on how many qualifications you can complete within the five-month period which, Ammar hopes will create momentum around the initiative:

“It’s like running — people achieve one level and then want to aim higher. Level 2 is considered challenging, but not too difficult so it shouldn’t deter people from giving it a go.  All courses last eight weeks, though it’s possible to finish them in one week if you put the hours in, and move onto another. Government acknowledges that the biggest challenge in growing the economy is the lack of skills and therefore the biggest opportunity to overcome a variety of social and economic problems is training skills — most social problems after all are traced back to poor education and learning.  By gaining a formal vocational qualification, we hope people will be encouraged to continue their lifelong learning and get further qualifications.”

After receiving funding from the Department for Education’s Adult Education Budget to support employers and employees, LCG immediately approached Ammar to discuss ways to promote their courses and The Big Learn was born. Ammar’s involvement this year has been focused on gaining advocates across the three major regions as well as acquiring Big Learn champions to help push the message out. Rightly so, the initiative has been well received. Most MPs in the North East are now supporting it led by Dave Anderson, the ex-MP for Blaydon and Shadow Secretary of State. Lots of public sector organisations are involved too, such as County Durham and Darlington Fire Brigade through their Chief Fire Officer, Stuart Errington. Clare Williams, Regional Northern Secretary for Unison, alongside a range of businesses including Nigel Wright Recruitment, Northumbria Water, Intu Metro Centre and the Federation of Small Business (FSB) are also recent supporters. Ammar confirmed by the end of August, around 600 organisations had signed up. He’s currently tracking sign-up numbers in the three regions to try and create competition across the North of England stating: “I want to see the North East become the most learned area in the UK.”

The Big Learn, Ammar highlighted, resonates with his whole ethos and approach to lifelong learning. The project has also enabled him to acknowledge five years since The PIE Charity was launched — the five months and fifty thousand people parameters are a nod to that anniversary — and a personal payoff is the agreed funding by Campaign of five thousand qualifications for young people via the PIE Charity. Ammar is also using The Big Learn platform to promote the Mental Health Awareness course which he believes anyone in a modern work environment would benefit from completing. In Ammar’s words: “Mental health related absence costs companies an estimated £500 million per year. It’s a massive issue and creating better awareness will not only help employers but society in general. Mental Health Awareness Day takes place on the 10th of October and we are encouraging everyone to sign up to this course before this day, which will not only raise the profile but provide a practical solution on tackling this epidemic.”

Those who gain their mental health awareness qualification, for example, learn to identify the symptoms of depression, post-natal depression and bi-polar disorder; understand how they affect an individual’s stress and anxiety and discover ways to deal with these behaviours. Ammar noted: “We spend most of the time at work and are usually unware if a colleague suffers from mental health issues, or we don’t know how to react in confrontational situations. The potential benefits of having employees with these qualifications should be attractive to any employer.”  

The Big Learn plans to keep supporting and raising awareness of lifelong learning beyond its five-month funding deadline. Ammar has already established links with colleges and universities, in addition to LCG, so the project can assist learners to investigate further qualifications in 2018 and beyond. He’s hopeful, too, businesses will offer to fund employees to progress to the next levels of their chosen courses: “We want to create a movement for people to recognise and realise the importance of a personal and professional development and how this is the basis for lifelong success.”

To find out more about The Big Learn and sign up your business today, please visit:

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