Judith Moran, chief executive, Learning Curve Group

Educationalist Judith Moran put career plans on hold to run the family store and ended up changing the lives of thousands. She now runs a business with a £27m turnover but says her greatest skill is one learned years ago. Jo Blakemore spoke to her

 

A family tragedy laid the foundations for Judith Moran’s business success when she had to leave work to run her father’s village shop. The skills she learned there as a teenager proved relevant in future roles and led her to where she is today, the chair and chief executive of £27m-turnover education provider the Learning Curve Group.

She also has her father to thank for her early introduction to the world of work - helping out on his milk round when she was eight, delivering bottles and collecting money from homes in their home village of Etherley, near Bishop Auckland.

She still lives in the area today and is passionate about its prosperity and the advancement of its inhabitants, as evidenced by the fact that one of the skills centre operated by Learning Curve is in the County Durham town.

Tied to her father’s store, Moran was a late entrant to the education profession, taking a degree in business aged 30 then working at Bishop Auckland Further Education College. She detailed her route to leading one of the country’s largest education sub-contractor partner, training thousands of learners over the past decade.

“I worked in Bishop Auckland College for nearly 15 years before setting up Learning Curve, starting as a lecturer and then going through a number of management roles within college. I didn’t come into education until I was older and I went in really because I just loved learning and the fact that as a mature student I really could relate better to learning than when I was 16.

“I really loved it but prior to going into education I did run a business and I loved working for myself and I wanted to do that again.”

That business was the shop owned by her father, George Maddison, in the mining village of West Auckland. During her time running the shop, Moran went to night classes to gain additional qualifications which would enable her to take a degree.

She said: “Dad was a miner, he worked in the mines locally, and basically I was going on a career path to accountancy but Dad took bad, he was ill with emphysema, so I left work. He had a small general dealer’s and off-licence so I ended up working there until we were in a position to sell it which ended up being 10 years. It was in West Auckland.

“I had left school at 16 to study for a private secretary’s diploma at Bishop Auckland College and then at 18 went to work for an accountant.

“I was employed there for about nine months when I left to help my father and from 1978-88 ran the business for him. My career path was put on hold but the experience I had in running the business and working with my father gave me the grounding and skills which were transferable for me to work for myself again and run my own business.

“It taught me how to deal with people, how to work, handling money, stocktaking, marketing, promotion, looking at your products. You’ve got to mix all of that – it doesn’t matter how small the business is, you’ve still got the same elements to it and if you can run a small business on a limited budget, you apply the same transferable skills to a business as it grows.”

But before that, she remembers her first experience of being in business was when she was eight, with the milk round. “I started at a very early age but it was all good experience.”

After the shop was sold in 1988, Moran studied for her business degree at the then Sunderland Polytechnic, and from 1990 taught at Bishop Auckland College, firstly as a lecturer, then becoming head of faculty for business and management as well as head of distance learning and franchise – “I was part of the management team there by the time I left in 2004 to set up Learning Curve.

“I saw an opportunity to look at going into training, staying in education, and that’s when I set up Learning Curve. I based it in Bishop Auckland because this is the area I grew up in and where I was educated and where I had been teaching. I love Bishop Auckland, I’m passionate about the area and I wanted to bring training and education with a little bit of a different slant to what the local colleges did.

“I developed certain areas of specialism, it was mainly the drive to work for myself again and have my own business. I liked the idea of working on flexible learning programmes, of working within the business and care sectors and that’s where a lot of the business originated.”

Learning Curve has provided training for literally thousands of young people and adults over the past decade, following on from its first direct contract with the Learning and Skills Council, as it was then to deliver NVQs in the workplace. Now it offers training via skills centres – in Bishop Auckland, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Leeds, Wakefield and Sheffield – and partners with 39 colleges across the country. Last year it enrolled 50,000 learners on to NVQs and apprenticeships. Last autumn it bought out the publishing business Learning at Work which produced all the learning materials used to deliver its flexible learning and rebranded as Learning Curve Group.

Moran said: “We’ve got the skills centres side of the business, the adult learners side of the business with the flexible learning and now the publishing arm of the business. The head office for the publishing is in Leeds. We outsource the printing but the development of learning materials and the new projects we do are done by the in-house team.

“I work hard with a core team of people. We’ve got a board of directors, there are five members of the board, and then have a 10-strong management team, some working in Learning Curve, some within the publishing side. I am the figurehead of the business but it very much is teamwork, the integration of the two businesses is happening at the moment. We have a managing director in Learning Curve, beside myself, Brenda McLeish, and sales director Tony Outhart, as well as 164 full-time staff and 423 associates.

“The majority of our management team are from an educational background. I think that’s where we are different – as a private training provider we do have a lot of experienced workers within further education (FE) colleges but also the work we do with FE colleges up and down the county really is a testament to how the management team have kept those links going and continued to work closely with the colleges.

“Coming up we’re looking at e-learning, obviously we’re looking at celebrating our 10th anniversary this year, and have quite a lot of things around that. We’ve just had our second Ofsted inspection and there should be some good news about that. Ofsted is a big thing for us, it’s a huge measure of you as a provider and a deliverer and a measure of what impact you’re having.

“We’re the biggest sub-contractor of colleges in the country. That’s the flexible learning part of our business and I would say 90% of that work is within the care sector. That mode of learning is so popular because the care sector is quite a transient workforce. We work with women who have other care responsibilities and I think the other thing is it’s sometimes the people who are getting on the first rung back into learning. They have done what they did at school then left, for whatever reason, and they’re getting back into learning.

“Numbers are increasing and all the time we’re looking at our curriculum offer and trying to match it with the industry needs, employer needs and learner needs.

“So, for example, we do things like safe handling of medicines which has been really popular for a long time and we’ve recently introduced a course on diabetes because it’s becoming more prevalent, more people need training in working with people with diabetes.

“We do courses such as end-of-life care, and we have learners that basically have used that course because they’ve had a personal loss as well so it’s not just about professional development, some of it is about personal development as well.”

Learning Curve’s skill centres - the three in the North East are construction skills centres, the three in Yorkshire for pre-military skills – work with young people and unemployed adults.

Moran said: “They’re called construction skill centres but we do other things in there like call centre training. The centres in Leeds, Sheffield and Wakefield are PMCs, pre-military centres, for anyone who wants to go into the Army or any of the Forces.

“These centres support young people to get physical fitness, be aware of nutrition and health, and to get skilled in literacy, numeracy, for entry into these services. These courses are really popular with these learners, who are often NEETs, out of education and training, and basically we manage to get them either into the Army, if that’s where they want to go, or into work. We’ve got great relationships with the TA Centres – we deliver this training through the TA Centres – so these youngsters go into these centres and straightaway they’re in an environment that is all about the services.

“In the construction skills centre, again we train 16 to 18-year-olds and combine the training with skill training for unemployed adults. It works so well with them working together. We do painting and decorating, joinery, welding, motor vehicles ... there’s a gold curriculum offer.

“My passion for the North East and for this area has been not just about delivering training but providing employment for people and providing employment for people who are local. Of the associates, all are North East-based and the majority work within a sector, a lot in the care sector and are highly-qualified, highly-trained professionals in their own field. I think one of the things is the care sector has a reputation and track record for delivering training and development and that’s why we can employ people from the sector and there are a lot of people who like working for the passion of it, not necessarily for the reward.”

She said the first few years of the business were spent building up its credibility, getting the kite marks and the track record: “There was an awful lot of groundwork to do to get us established and for the Learning Curve name to be recognised out in the sector.

The focus for a long time has been on education and training and I want to continue delivering high-quality education and training for the people of the North East.

“I think the top and bottom of it is that I just like working with people. I enjoy being with people and helping them. There have been opportunities to do different things but I’ve always wanted to have my own business.”

Moran, who is divorced, admits to not having much time for leisure, but what free time she does have is given over mainly to family. She has a 29-year-old daughter who followed her educational footsteps and is now a teacher, and a 17-year-old son who is still at school.

Gardening is another hobby and she has just created a garden from scratch at the house she had built in Bishop Auckland.

Her practical side is obviously combined with creativity, but considering all she has done so far in life, from beginning work at such a young age, to bringing up children and changing the career outlooks of so many people, is she able to single out something memorable?

She said: “If somebody said to me, ‘What is the best skill that you’ve ever learned in your life?’ it would be to touch type. I remember going to do my degree and I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to type up my dissertation and the fact that I could touch type was of immense value. Even now I find it so much easier sometimes to reel something off myself than give it to somebody else to do.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? Lexus

What’s your favourite restaurant? Gabrielles in Bishop Auckland

Who or what makes you laugh? Being out with my friends... great banter and ferocious mickey taking

What’s your favourite book? Far From the Madding Crowd

What was the last album you bought? AM Arctic Monkeys

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? I cannot think of anything I would rather do than my current role. I have been my own boss for too long now... so it would need to be a role in a business that I was involved in the ownership of.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say? I wouldn’t have thought so

What’s your greatest fear? The most important thing in life is the health and well being of my family and friends.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received? In business the only place that success comes before work rate is in a dictionary

And the worst? I think the worst piece of business related advice I have received was when I was planning to set up Learning Curve.

A number of people told me I shouldn’t give up a ‘safe’ job to venture out on my own but, sometimes you have to just take that leap of faith. Thankfully, I didn’t listen to them!

What’s your poison? Got to be a nice glass of Sancerre or Cloudy Bay

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? Telegraph

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? My first pay packet for working full time was £24 and I was working as a trainee in an accountancy practice

How do you keep fit? I love gardening and enjoy walking. My working life is very busy so I find this does keep me fit.

What’s your most irritating habit? Being preoccupied when I have things to do but supposed to be relaxing.

What’s your biggest extravagance? A pair of diamond earrings

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire and why? I admire Vera Brittain who was born in (29 December 1893 – 29 March 1970).She was a British writer and journalist , who wrote Testiment of Youth which recounted her experiences in WW1.

She worked as a nurse in France and witnessed the horror of war as well losing her brother and many friends during this time. She was a feminist and because of her experiences became a pacifist. She made a difference to many peoples lives.

Which four famous people would you like to dine with? My dad who passed away in 1999 (not famous but would love the opportunity to have dinner with him) Dawn French, Sting and Joanna Lumley

How would you like to be remembered? Fun loving, caring and passionate about helping people get on in life by gaining qualifications

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