Opportunities to learn every day

Debbie Bullock has been able to combine working and studying for the last few years, thanks to the support she has received from her employer Aviva.


Debbie Bullock left school at 16 and started work straight away. For more than 30 years she has been at insurance firm Aviva in a range of roles. She thought about returning to her studies a few times in her 30s and 40s, but the time was never right due to family and other reasons. But as she was nearing her 50s and with her children grown up, everything changed. In 2018 she did a secondment as wellbeing lead. It was a grade above her substantive post and she then took that role on permanently. It showed her that she could grow her career.

Debbie was aware that Aviva was very much in favour of apprenticeships and that there was no age barrier. She wasn’t, however, conscious of how broad the offering was at Aviva until she started to do some digging and found a course in leadership and management that really appealed to her. In large part this was because it offered not only the chance to do a degree in business management, but also to get a professional qualification from the Chartered Management Institute which would help with her career progression.

Debbie says she felt some sense of self-doubt when she applied as she had left school so early, but she spoke to her family and her boss and they were fully behind her. As part of the apprenticeship she needed to ensure that she had opportunities to apply her learning at work and be able to talk about that in her end of point assessment.

She began the apprenticeship in January 2020, just as the world was about to go into Covid lockdown and when her role, as wellbeing lead, was about to get extremely busy. Asked how she managed it all, she says the support of family and work colleagues and her sheer determination saw her through. “The saying goes, if you want something done ask a busy person,” she says. Twenty per cent of her time at work was devoted to her apprenticeship. Every module was 10 weeks and she spent four days per module at York St John University. The other nine weeks were devoted to self learning, including doing assignments and looking at how she could apply what she had learned at work, for instance, she spent time in the marketing department at work when she did a module on marketing.


Debbie admits she did extra work in her own time at the weekends, but says that, in a way, Covid helped her to focus as there was nothing else she could do. She says the apprenticeship has helped her get a better understanding of management and leadership and given her a broad view of the business. It also gave her more confidence. During the time she was doing her studies – she finished her degree in May 2022 and the apprenticeship in June 2023 – she did two secondments and her role was extended to cover Ireland as well as the UK. “It reinforced my own self-belief,” she says. Debbie got a first in her degree and a distinction in the end of point assessment at the end of her studies. She has also been appointed a trustee of the Insurance Charities organisation which she uses her voluntary leave at Aviva for. There she has been able to use the strategic knowledge she gained on her course.

Debbie’s children, now aged 29 and 25 and her husband and dad were at her graduation ceremony at York St John University. It was a very proud moment. “I could not have been more proud,” she says. “I never thought it was something I would do. It was really emotional,” she says. She adds that her late mum had always wanted her kids to go to university. “I asked my dad if mum would be proud of me and he said ‘definitely’, “ she says. Her husband has put her graduation picture in a frame in pride of place in their home.

Debbie has now got the learning bug and is planning to do a master’s in September with a six-month extension to get an MBA. She says her family is quite competitive and she is keen to go one better than her daughter who also got a first in her undergraduate degree and is keen to do a master’s. “I’m looking forward to getting in there first and being the most qualified person in the house,” she laughs.

She adds that Aviva can see the benefits all round of its apprenticeship programme and even gifts some of its apprenticeship levy to smaller organisations it works with. “It helps retain talent and Aviva is clear that age is no barrier,” she says, adding that she is keen to dispel the myth that apprenticeships are low paid, aimed only at 18 year olds and cover a narrow range of skills. Around 220 people at Aviva started apprenticeships in the last year, with several being in their 50s. “We want to create a learning culture. Your love of learning should not stop whatever your age,” says Debbie. “ There are opportunities to learn and grow every day.”

*Debbie features in WM People’s 2024 Best Practice Report which will be published shortly.

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