Colleges at the heart of Scotland’s communities

First published on September 2017 in the Ayrshire College Blog

One of our vice principals was invited to speak to the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on College and Universities earlier this year about how colleges engage with local communities.

The Convener of the Group, Liz Smith MSP, said that the role of colleges and universities in the community had been overlooked in recent years, and that this was an opportunity to bring that role back into focus.

In this post, Jackie Galbraith summarises what she shared with the Cross Party Group.

Communities at the heart of everything we do

As I prepared for my short presentation, I reflected on why I had applied for my current role as vice principal at Ayrshire College four years ago, just as the new regional college was being created as part of the government’s reform of post-16 education in Scotland.

I was clear then about my motivations for wanting to play a role in the college sector.

I’d 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. I wanted to be part of the college sector that was central to meeting the Scottish Government ambitions for developing the young workforce!

I was delighted to discover that Ayrshire College was the main provider of engineering and construction apprenticeships in the region. I was excited to learn that the college was a centre of excellence in fulfilling the skills needs of a strong aerospace sector. And, I was impressed with how it was responding to employment growth in sectors like care, tourism and digital.

But, there was something else.

Before I started my new job I watched a TedxTalk by the newly appointed principal of Ayrshire College, Heather Dunk, which added another layer to my excitement!

The principal point in Heather’s talk was that the college’s unique selling point was that it cared. Cared for students and cared for communities. She illustrated this by describing the learning journey of two students, Jodie and Lee, who started at the college in the HIVE (Hope, Innovation and Vision in Education), a specialist learning space that provides personalised support for young people who have disengaged from education.

I knew that colleges played an important role in communities, but to see this in such sharp focus was refreshing and energising!

From the outset, 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 who, as well as engaging students in community-based campaigns, raised £14,000 for local charities in the past year alone!

We work collaboratively with the three community planning partnerships (CPPs) in the region and their priorities are reflected in our priorities. Building and supporting working, healthy and safe communities. At the cross party group, I shared some examples of how we are helping to deliver these priorities.

Colleges support working communities

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 with local employability partnerships and employers, we build the confidence and skills of people in communities to take advantage of opportunities in economic and jobs growth in sectors like care, hospitality and construction.

We deliver our Ayrshire Hospitality and Bartender course at all of our campuses, in partnership with local employers and JobCentre Plus. Part of Diageo’s Learning for Life initiative, the course fast tracks long-term unemployed young people into jobs by helping them to gain new skills and nationally recognised qualifications. Delivered over a six-week period by the college, the course includes a two week work placement at a hospitality company where young people learn from industry experts. We’ve run 12 courses since 2014 with 146 people taking part. The success is clear – 65% of participants gained hospitality jobs immediately on completion of the course, and 75% within three months of completing.


Working with North Ayrshire Council, we run the Skills for Life programme to support unemployed people into work by helping them develop confidence and skills. In 2016-17, twenty of the first cohort of 24 students progressed into positive destinations including 18 who gained paid employment. The second cohort provided 27 lone parents with six weeks of intensive training at the college before moving into paid placements within North Ayrshire Council.

In partnership with East Ayrshire Council and Jobcentre Plus, we deliver the Me2You programme, where unemployed people take part in a work placement in schools for two days and attend training at the college for two days each week. Over the past two years, Me2You has run four times with a total of 32 participants – 21 have secured jobs and 5 others moved onto a positive destination.

We will continue to run courses like these, customised to local needs, as long as there is a need in Ayrshire’s communities.

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.

At Ayrshire College, we work hard to improve the health of our students, staff and the wider community. We have three unique shared posts, funded in partnership with NHS Ayrshire & Arran, PoliceScotland and the three integrated Health and Social Care Partnerships in Ayrshire. Our Addictions Liaison Officer, Campus Liaison Officer, and Mental Health & Wellbeing Liaison Officer deliver workshops on topics like hate crime, alcohol and drug use, domestic abuse, personal safety, mental health and sexual health.

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. Well received by pupils and their teachers, this provides 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 to introduce changes to their lives that have significant health benefits to them and their wider community. It provides active travel advice, free health checks, referrals to free fitness classes for children, older adults and families, dietary tips and cooking advice.


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. For example, this year sports students organised an anti-racism event in partnership with Supporters Direct Scotland (SDS). One Ayrshire – Many Cultures 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 raise awareness of gender-based violence and 16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence is firmly established in the college calendar. Last year our Student Association organised a Reclaim the Night walk which brought 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 which raises awareness of domestic abuse and  money for East Ayrshire Women’s Aid to help families.

Caring is a critical success factor

Research shows that there are important links between skills and employability, health and crime. We see that every day in Ayrshire. People’s lives are transformed when they gain hope and confidence through learning new skills. This, in turn, builds aspirations in communities.

As well as having a positive impact on the lives of people in the communities we work with, the College’s culture of engagement and support develops the broader skills 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 them develop the essential skills required by employers.

So, as well as making a difference to their communities, volunteering makes a difference to the students who take part.

Students like Natasha Kerr, who in 2016 was named Scotland’s Youth Worker of the Year at YouthLink’s National Youth Worker of the Year awards, at which she was also named Volunteer of the Year. Natasha dedicated more than 800 hours last year to volunteering with Kilmarnock Harriers, Catrine Youth Club and East Ayrshire Vibrant Communities where she coached young people in a range of sports. Natasha 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 caring, enabling community college breathing life into localities. It’s not about being one or the other – 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 worker, what they learn through their volunteering activities and community-based live projects makes them extremely valuable assets to the workforce. 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.

Our Principal said in August 2013 that caring was a critical success factor for Ayrshire College. I’m proud to work in a college with staff and students who care so much for our communities. 

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