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Sarah MacNeil

OU student Sarah at Castlebay, with the sea and castle in the background. Photo by Leila Angus.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 enabled 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 celebrated completion of her honours degree in Education Studies (Primary) at a ceremony in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in autumn 2023. 

She says: “My studies began to impact my career as soon as I started studying. I feel much more confident in my role as a learning support assistant.

“Absolutely do it. I haven't looked back. There is a huge sense of personal achievement.”

Sarah’s degree was funded by a Part-Time Fee Grant. Combining family life with modules was also possible for the mum of two. 

Relocation and new job

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 has been able to apply her studies directly to a classroom setting as she progressed.

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."

Importance of children's wellbeing

A module Sarah particularly enjoyed was Making a difference: working with children and young people.

“Wellbeing is so crucial for children and young people and this module explores the importance of this,” she says.  

Support for learning assistant Sarah, outside one of the Barra schools she works at. Photo by Leila Angus.“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.”

Comparative and international studies in primary education was another module taken.

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 had to fit around all of this.”

Flexible study

I felt The Open University gave me the flexibility I needed to study.”

Sarah spent about 15-18 hours studying a week, spread across weekdays when she finished at work early, some evenings, and Sundays. Saturday was always a family day. 

Enjoyment kept Sarah motivated and she was active in online OU communities. She says: 

“I thoroughly enjoyed my course. There were days when I found it hard, especially when I was working on an essay, but I enjoyed it and I really wanted to do it.

“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. The tutors supported us through this medium too which was super.”

OU graduate Sarah MacNeil - photo by Julie HowdenOn gaining her degree, she says: “I feel very proud of myself that I managed to complete my studies.

“At times it was not easy juggling home life, work and studies. I feel an immense sense of achievement.” 

Sarah is considering taking her studies further and looking into options such as primary school teaching.


Photos on Barra taken by Leila Angus. Graduation photo by Julie Howden.