Sarah MacNeil swapped her Newcastle-based TV and film industry career for island life on Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where she now works in education.
Flexible Open University (OU) study is enabling Sarah to pursue a degree on the island - famed for its striking hills, machair, moor and beaches - where ferries sail in from Oban, and airplanes land directly on the sand in between tides.
One of the OU’s most westerly students, Sarah is four years into her honours degree in Education Studies (Primary), Part-Time Fee Grant funded. Combining family life with modules is also possible for the mum of two.
Sarah previously worked on screen productions including Billy Elliot, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Wire in the Blood and Byker Grove. Now she works with pupils from P1 to S4 at Barra’s two schools, and is able to apply her studies directly to a classroom setting as she progresses.
I wanted to be able to do my best for all the children that I work with and I felt that by having a deeper understanding of education I would be able to achieve this.”
She says: “I currently work as a support for learning assistant and I wanted to know more about what I was doing. I wanted to be able to do my best for all the children that I work with and I felt that by having a deeper understanding of education I would be able to achieve this.
“Every single day is a learning day in my role. I support children that sometimes need a little extra help with their work. What is successful for one child may not work for another, so you are constantly learning all the time.
“My studies help me find the right path to take along with the help, advice and support from the staff at school."
“I am loving my current module, Making a difference: working with children and young people. Wellbeing is so crucial for children and young people and this module is exploring the importance of this.
“I feel this is a key part of my role as a support for learning assistant. Wellbeing is equally as important as the academic achievements of the children I work with.”
Sarah adds: “Straight after school I studied a HND in TV Production and Multimedia. I had a successful career as a Production Co-ordinator in the television and film industry for 11 years, before moving to the Outer Hebrides, where my husband is from, in 2007.
“Living on an island has its limitations. I felt The Open University gave me the flexibility I needed to study. I have a young family, I work and my husband is a lorry driver that takes him off island regularly, so my studies have to fit around all of this.
“I manage to get about 15-18 hours study in per week. I always work on a Sunday. There are a couple of days per week I finish at work early so I use that time to study, and also some evenings.
I felt The Open University gave me the flexibility I needed to study.”
“I always keep Saturday as a family day as I feel that is important.”
Enjoyment keeps Sarah motivated. “I am thoroughly enjoying my course. There are days when I find it hard, especially when I am working on an essay, but I enjoy it and I really want to do it.”
And she is active in online OU communities. “The forum is a great place to ask questions and nine times out of ten, you find there are other people asking the same question,” says Sarah. “The tutors support us through this medium too which is super.”
Photos by Leila Angus.