By Laura Oliver Students Miranda Buchanan: Distance Learner of the Year 2018 11 Feb 2019 Not everyone would react to being made redundant while on maternity leave in the same way as Miranda Buchanan. But Buchanan’s resilience in the face of adversity, is perhaps just one of the reasons why she was named AAT’s Distance Learner of the Year 2018. After her job role at a charity was lost following a takeover, the new mum saw the combination of redundancy pay and maternity leave as an opportunity to learn new skills. Knowing she would have to find a new job, she reviewed her CV and was confident in her management experience, but wanted to boost her financial qualifications. Her research led her to the AAT and a quick online test suggested Foundation Certificate was a good starting point. “I used my redundancy money to do the course, which was a bit scary because it was my financial security at the time – but I don’t regret it,” says Buchanan, who was 30 at the time. Distance learning – the perfect solution to juggling motherhood and studies Buchanan’s daughter was just eight months old when she enrolled for her course in August 2016 (a month after being made redundant), with The Training Place of Excellence, which coincidentally is a short distance away from her home in South London. “It turns out I drove past it all the time but had never really noticed it before,” she says. Her plan was to become “a student at night” and use the flexibility of distance learning to fit her studies and exams around her new family commitments. Learning at her own pace also helped accommodate her dyslexia, she says. “I’d get my daughter into bed and then 11pm-5am was my study time. I knew it was time to go to bed when I heard the first plane fly over,” she explains, adding that “having a baby who doesn’t respect that mum might want to sleep” made her night-time study make even more sense. “Obviously I would have loved more sleep, but it was short-term pain for long-term gain.” A self-confessed night owl, Buchanan realises her study plan wouldn’t suit everyone, but says coming up with a regimen that suits you, your life and your preferred times for study is one of the biggest advantages of learning at a distance. Make sure breaks and treats are part of your schedule too Finding a balance After her first exam, Buchanan took a short break from her studies but later took five or six assessments back-to-back. She passed them all first time, but says it was harder to get back into the studying routine after pausing: “When I first started it was like when you sign up for the gym and you are an eager beaver and then after a few weeks… it changes,” she says. “Sometimes flexibility is good but then you can abuse it. With distance learning, there’s no one else there pushing you. It’s a lot of self-discipline, you’ve got to put in the hours. Like everything in life, you’ve got to stick at it to get results. The flexibility is there though if something happens and you need to take some time off.” She also urges students to find a balance, as without a classroom setting and peer-to-peer you can burn out. “It’s easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself and spend too long staring at a laptop,” she says. “Make sure breaks and treats are part of your schedule too, whether it’s a biscuit, a walk in the morning or a few minutes to check social media as a reward for working,” she says. “Within the last hour of study, I’d have a break from the laptop and a gin and tonic. If you don’t find that balance you will end up resenting your studies and won’t want to come back to them the next day.” Be persistent Buchanan says the beginning of the course was the trickiest part, because the language and concepts were so unfamiliar. “It was all brand new, starting with credits and debits, which I didn’t understand at first. But once you get the foundation out of the way the course gets easier because it’s all related. You have to be persistent,” she says. The support she received from her learning provider, especially when she felt stuck, was invaluable, she says. They provided her with ample materials and she would supplement these by searching for online discussions and YouTube videos if she needed alternative explanations of complex and new ideas. Buchanan is now working for a small, family-run property management business and has already been able to implement some of the ideas and practices she learned for her Foundation Certificate. “I have introduced cashbooks and there are few other things that I want to slowly introduce – I don’t want to be the new person coming in and taking over though,” she laughs. My qualification has definitely come in useful and it feels really good to be able to use it to help the business.” Her distance learning experience was so positive that she now has her sights set on Advanced Diploma. “Looking at the job market there are always jobs in finance. All the admin jobs have that listed as a skill too so if I have that I will be more competitive,” she says. Now it’s about applying what she’s learned and saving up for the next course. Second-time around perhaps she’ll have time for more sleep too – if she doesn’t, it’s unlikely to stop her or her success. Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.