Retired former miner from Maesteg wins Lifetime Achievement award for inspiring others

“Doors open and shut but when a door opens, I have the confidence to walk through it.”

Retired former miner wins Lifetime Achievement award for inspiring others to never stop learning

An ex-miner who was made redundant at 51 has won an Inspire! Award for pursuing his passions; a journey that has taken him from underground to across the world.


John Gates, 82, lives in Maesteg and comes from a family of miners. He started working at Coegnant Colliery at a young age and worked his way up from trainee colliery to fitter, to first aider and ‘rescue man’.


Seven decades later, John has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Inspire! Award for reinventing himself through education and for his advocacy work in helping others in his community, proving it’s never too late to turn your life around.

John’s inspirational story has seen him travel to different corners of the world, taking centre stage in the Houses of Parliament, and being interviewed by the Princess of Sweden.


John said: “I left school with no qualifications, and I could barely read and write. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could make something of my life.

“I worked underground for 19 years but decided to apply for a position at a training centre after my wife became concerned about the dangers of the job. It wasn’t until I moved to the training centre as a first-aid instructor that things really started to change for me.

“I studied a basic skills course for two years and realised that I could do anything I put my mind to. I went on to get three O Levels at Bridgend College and a qualification in Computing which allowed me to keep working for another five years during the miners’ strikes. I stayed on as a training manager for other collieries when the training centre closed.”


During his time at the training branch, John went on to study for a degree in Humanities at the Open University. He also established himself as a distinguished embroiderer and travelled the world to teach and inspire others.


He continued: “Growing up, I was surrounded by my mother and neighbours who sewed and knitted. Throughout the strikes in the 1970s, I was bored stiff and short of money, so I decided to give embroidery a go.

“I started completing kits and soon realised I could improve on the designs. As I grew in confidence, I started to embroider my own. I went on a gold thread course at Longleat House and did a residential course on Japanese silk embrodiary. I even embroidered my two daughter’s wedding dresses and later my grandchildren’s christening gowns.”


John embarked on a two-year PGCE teacher training course and worked in special needs education. He completed his PGCE in 1998, the same year he won his first Adult Learner of the Year award.

“During Adult Learners’ Week in 2000 I was asked to give a speech to welcome international visitors to the Millennium Dome in London,” he said. “I ended up chatting to an Australian gentleman who turned out to be a Minister for Education and he invited me to Australia to talk about my experience of redundancy in light of the pits and steel mills closing over there.”


Word spread, and since then, John has been invited to speak at conferences from Norway to UNESCO’s international adult education conference in Brazil. He has spoken twice in the Houses of Parliament, as well as several times in Scottish Parliament and the Senedd as a global learning ambassador.


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.”


In more recent years, John has taken up the position of Chairman of a Men’s Shed, a charity aiming to tackle physical and mental health issues in men.


John said: “Men’s Shed was originally started in Australia to tackle the number of suicides in the outback. Noticing a similar spike in Bridgend, we decided to turn what had been a veteran’s club into a Men’s Shed and 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.”


John is one of 11 winners to be recognised at the 2023 Inspire! Awards. Co-ordinated by the Learning and Work Institute with support from the Welsh Government. The Inspire! Awards recognise those who have demonstrated a commitment to never stop learning. Each Inspire! winner demonstrates how learning can offer second chances, help create new career opportunities, build confidence, and help communities to become vibrant and successful.


The Inspire! Awards will take place this year on September 14th and celebrate the achievements of exceptional individuals, community projects and organisations.


For adults in Wales keen to start their learning journey, in-person taster courses and online sessions will run throughout September and during Adult Learners’ Week (18th – 24th September), with advice and information available locally to inspire people to take up learning as a way of increasing their employability and boosting their mental wellbeing.


Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language, said: “Congratulations to this year’s Inspire! Award winners and nominees. It’s incredible to see so many individuals of different ages, from varied backgrounds, and with a range of abilities overcoming personal challenges and becoming role models for us all.

“The Inspire! Awards are a fantastic platform to showcase learners who have gone above and beyond to turn their lives around and succeed in their careers. Thanks to their hard work and dedication, this year’s winners have shown how learning can help pave the way to personal and professional success.


Joshua Miles, Director for Wales at Learning and Work Institute, said: “The Inspire! Awards serve as a reminder of how important it is to never stop learning. We live in a world that’s changing rapidly. Between the impact of the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and the emergence of new technologies, nothing stays still for long. Learning helps us adapt to this change and ultimately benefit from it.

“If we keep learning and improving our skills throughout our lives, we can continue to increase our job prospects and are more likely to secure a promotion or be able to change careers. We also know that learning is good for our self-esteem and mental health, making us feel more linked to our community.

“Our Inspire! Award winners are a testament to how learning throughout our lives can help us deal with life’s challenges. As we celebrate our winners, we hope that their stories can inspire more people across Wales to take part in courses throughout Adult Learners’ Week.”


To find out what’s going on during Adult Learners’ Week, and for personalised advice on your own learning options and support available, get in touch with Working Wales on 0800 028 4844 or search