Communities at the heart of everything we do
I’ve been passionate about the value of vocational education for over three decades – as a student, in industry, as a lecturer, as a senior manager in national educational organisations, and as a policy adviser in government. In 2013, I had the opportunity to fulfil this passion by taking up a vice principal post at the new Ayrshire College.
My job just prior to joining the college was advising the Minister for Youth Employment on vocational education and its critical role in tackling youth unemployment, for example through industry-relevant qualifications and apprenticeships. I wanted to play a part in meeting the stretching ambitions set out for colleges by the Scottish Government.
I learned that Ayrshire College was a centre of excellence in supporting the skills needs of a strong aerospace sector. I discovered that that the college was the main provider of engineering and construction apprenticeships in the region. And, I was impressed with how it was responding to employment growth in sectors like care, early years, and hospitality and tourism.
All of this reinforced how critical colleges are in enabling young people to develop the right skills to take advantage of jobs in these and other industry sectors. Very relevant in the light of the recent publication of the Scottish Government’s report on the 15-24 Learner Journey Review.
But, there was something else.
Although I was vaguely aware of the role that colleges played in communities, to see this in very sharp focus was refreshing and energising!
From the beginning, community engagement has been in the DNA of Ayrshire College, demonstrated by the time and energy that staff and students allocate to this. A culture of engaging with and supporting communities is embedded across all curriculum areas and embraced enthusiastically by our Student Association which, as well as engaging students in campaigns like Reclaim the Night, raises tens of thousands of pounds for local charities each year.
The college works collaboratively with the three community planning partnerships (CPPs) in the region. Their priorities – tackling inequalities, and building and supporting working, healthier and safer communities – are reflected in our priorities.
Colleges support working communities and inclusive growth
Inclusive growth is defined as “broad based growth that enables the widest range of people and places to both contribute to and benefit from economic success”.
Colleges are critical to making inclusive growth a reality.
Working closely with community planning partners and employers, we build the confidence and skills of people in communities to take advantage of employment opportunities in economic and jobs growth in sectors like early years, care, hospitality and construction.
For example, at Ayrshire College we deliver Hospitality and Bartender courses in partnership with local employers and JobCentre Plus. Part of Diageo’s Learning for Life initiative, the course is designed to fast track long-term unemployed people into jobs by helping them acquire new skills, gain nationally recognised qualifications and learn from industry experts. Delivered over a six-week period by the college, the course includes a two-week work placement with a hospitality business. Hundreds of young people have taken part in these courses – two thirds of them gain jobs immediately on completion, 75% within three months of completing the course.
Working with North Ayrshire Council, we run the Skills for Life programme to support unemployed people into work by helping them develop the confidence and skills necessary for the workplace. Six weeks of intensive training at the college, followed by paid placements in North Ayrshire Council, has enabled most participants to progress into positive destinations, mostly into jobs.
These are just two examples of our ongoing support for people across the region. There are many more. As long as there is a need in Ayrshire’s communities to help unemployed people develop the skills to get into and stay in work we will continue to run courses like these, customised to individual, local and employer needs.
Colleges support healthier communities
Some people face multiple barriers to having happy and productive lives. An important aspect of enabling people to secure and sustain employment is helping them improve their physical and mental health.
Like all colleges, we work hard to improve the health of our students, staff and the wider community. At Ayrshire College, we have three unique shared posts which are funded in partnership with NHS Ayrshire & Arran, Police Scotland and the three integrated Health and Social Care Partnerships in Ayrshire. Each offers a unique range of services and interventions to promote student safety and wellbeing.
Our contribution to a healthier Ayrshire is most vividly illustrated by the community focus of our sports curriculum. All full-time sport and fitness students volunteer in Ayrshire schools through the Active Schools partnerships in East, North and South Ayrshire councils. Well received by pupils and their teachers, this also provides our students with invaluable coaching experience in a real life setting, while increasing the fitness of young people.
Each year our sports students are instrumental in delivering Ayrshire Sportsability’s Festival of Sport, a focal point for disability sport in the region and a highlight for students who coach over 600 young people each year in eight different activities over the four days of the festival.
Our sports staff and students have been recognised at a national level for their campaigns to improve the fitness of local residents, young and old. For example, Get East Ayrshire Active has engaged thousands of shoppers in Kilmarnock town centre, helping them introduce changes to their lives that have significant health benefits to them as well as their wider community. The students also support physical activity for older adults in the community, for example by running fitness classes or coaching walking football.
As well as helping Ayrshire’s people to be physically healthier, we allocate considerable time, energy and resource to support those struggling with mental health problems. Throughout the year, staff and students organise awareness raising events to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health, to highlight the support that is available for those who need it, and to raise funds for organisations like the Scottish Association of Mental Health.
Colleges support safer communities
An important aspect of our work in supporting safer communities is helping students to understand and challenge racist, sectarian and homophobic behaviour. Sports students organised an anti-racism event in partnership with Supporters Direct Scotland. One Ayrshire – Many Cultures complements Colour of our Scarves, an initiative that focuses on sport, and football specifically, in a bid to tackle discrimination of all kinds and promote equality.For example, our sports students organise anti-racism events in partnership with Supporters Direct Scotland such as One Ayrshire – Many Cultures which complements Colour of our Scarves, an SDS initiative that tackles discrimination of all kinds in sport and promotes equality.
We work with regional and local Violence against Women partnerships to to deliver on the Equally Safe action plan and raise awareness of gender-based violence. 16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence is firmly established in the college calendar each year and our Student Association organises a Reclaim the Night walk which brings students, staff and others together to campaign for the safety of women and girls. Sports staff and students organise an annual Blow the Whistle on Domestic Violence 5-a-side football tournament to raise awareness of domestic abuse and raise money for East Ayrshire Women’s Aid to help families affected by abuse.
Working with communities helps students develop essential skills for life and work
Research shows that there are important links between skills and employability, health and crime. We see that every day in Ayrshire. The college’s culture of engagement and support has a positive impact on the lives of people in the communities we work with.
Crucially, this culture supports the broader skills development of our students who, through their involvement with people of different ages, abilities and cultures become more empathetic, tolerant and employable individuals. Volunteering activities enrich their learning experience, promote active citizenship and help students to develop the soft skills required by employers.
So, as well as making a difference to their communities, it makes a difference to the students who volunteer.
Students like Natasha Kerr, who in 2016 was named Scotland’s Youth Worker of the Year at the YouthLink National Awards Ceremony. Natasha dedicates hundreds of hours each year to volunteering and coaching young people in a range of sports, and was offered a place at St Andrew’s University as a result of her achievement in the national Youth Worker awards.
I learned very quickly when I joined Ayrshire College that it is possible to be a world class vocational education provider at the same time as a being a vibrant community college providing vital resources for local communities.
These do not compete. In fact, they complement each other.
Regardless of whether a student ends up working as an engineer in a world-leading aerospace company, an early years practitioner, a joiner, a hairdresser, a network support technician or a care support worker what they learn through their volunteering activities and community-based projects makes them extremely valuable assets to Scotland’s workforce and communities.
We’re developing a young workforce that meets the skills needs of Ayrshire’s economy.
Just as important, we are creating a young workforce that cares for its communities and contributes to their success.