Interrupt19 — Daring to be digital!

At West Lothian College we want to help address the digital skills shortage in Scotland, so that as many people as possible can take advantage of the many opportunities available now and in the future.

It is widely reported that over 12,500 digital technologies job opportunities are created each year in Scotland.

While 40% of people in digital technologies roles work in the tech industry, 60% are employed in sectors like financial services, manufacturing, and healthcare. This shows that digital technologies are increasingly essential to all sectors of the economy. According to tech industry body, ScotlandIS, the number of people working in technology related jobs is growing at a faster rate in non-tech sectors than in the digital technologies industry itself!

We want to enable people, businesses and communities in West Lothian to have the skills to take advantage of these opportunities. Central to that ambition are students on digital and computing courses at the college. Their skills will be vital to enabling companies in every sector of the economy to benefit from developments like Big Data, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.

Our digital offer starts with stimulating interest in tech at an early age by running coding events for school pupils. We build on this by delivering computing qualifications like the Software Development Foundation Apprenticeship to senior secondary pupils.

In August we will welcome our first three cohorts of students onto our HNC Cyber Security course and next year we will offer HND Cyber Security. We are embedding data science into all our computing qualifications and aiming to offer HNC Data Science from 2020. These, and the other computing qualifications we deliver, are highly relevant to industry and for progression to degree study. Our very successful partnership with Edinburgh Napier University leads to many of our computing graduates moving straight into second or third year of related degrees at the university.

Recognising the need to invest in the skills of and right facilities for our computing students we are launching a new Cyber Lab in September. Equipped with high spec state of the art technology, this bespoke facility will enable our students to develop their skills in an environment relevant to the companies they aspire to work in.

In the computing context an interrupt is a signal to the processor alerting it to a high priority event that needs immediate attention and suspending current activities to deal with that.

So it is with our Interrupt19 festival – we are suspending normal activity for our computing students on Wednesday 11 September to allow them to benefit from a wide range of industry experts on mission critical topics like cyber security, data science and the internet of things.

We plan to hold the Interrupt festival annually and expect it to grow each year. This year our main audience is over 250 computing students, most of whom are studying at HNC level or above. Also attending will be up to 100 senior secondary school pupils and some local businesses keen to find out more about the impact of digital and data developments on them.

Interrupt19 has an action-packed agenda. Fantastic speakers like Gillian Docherty from The Data Lab, Eamonn Keane from the Scottish Business Resilience Centre and Professor Bill Buchanan from Edinburgh Napier University will introduce delegates to the world of data and cyber security and inspire them to take control of their own digital future.

Interactive workshops led by leading tech contributors like Toni Scullion, winner of last year’s Scottish Women in Technology award for secondary education, and ethical hackers from the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, will enable delegates to try out current and emerging technologies relevant to the world today and tomorrow.

West Lothian College is working hard to help address the digital skills gap — Interrupt19 will help inspire Scotland’s future digital creators.

Welcoming to all | Students at the centre of everything we do | Always striving for better

Investing in our people

On 30 May 2019, West Lothian College moved beyond its existing Investors in People Bronze status to achieve Silver accreditation. 

West Lothian College first achieved Investors in People recognition in 2010 and achieved Bronze status under the previous 5th Generation Framework in 2016.

We use the Investors in People framework to review and improve our people management strategies, and to ensure they have maximum impact on the overall student experience.

There are four levels of accreditation in the current Investors in People 6th Generation Framework – Standard, Silver, Gold and Platinum. I am delighted that we have made progress on our improvement journey by being awarded Silver accreditation.

This demonstrates that we are living our three core values of being welcoming to all, having students at the centre of everything we do, and always striving for better.

It also shows that we are making progress on the aims of our People Strategy to:

  • Attract a highly talented and diverse workforce
  • Enable and drive delivery of the college plan through our people
  • Create a culture in which our people thrive.

The Investors in People framework assesses organisations against the three areas of Leading, Supporting and Improving. Within these areas are nine performance indicators and we are assessed against these indicators using a performance model made up of four levels – developed, established, advanced and high-performing.

The diagram below is the external assessment of West Lothian College. It shows that we are performing at an advanced level on Leading and Inspiring People, and on Building Capability. Our performance for the remaining seven indicators has been judged as established.

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Achieving Silver is a great achievement, and a recognition of the progress we are making against the 9 indicators. It shows that we still have work to do to improve everyone’s experience of working at the college and that is something we will remain firmly focused on.

Investors in People assessments take place every three years and our goal is to achieve at least Gold status in 2022. By doing so, we will demonstrate that we are continuing to strive for better in creating a culture in which our people thrive.


Welcoming to all | Students at the Centre of everything we do | Always striving for better

Ambitious for West Lothian

On 14 March I welcomed 42 guests – including 30 businesses from the private sector as well as national and local stakeholders – to our award-winning Terrace training restaurant to talk about how we can make a difference together.

I started as principal of West Lothian College seven months ago.

Since then, I’ve spent time getting to know staff and students, getting out to West Lothian’s towns and communities, meeting national and local stakeholders, and visiting employers. The dinner was a great opportunity to bring together some of the key influencers in the West Lothian’s business community.

Our vision at West Lothian College is straightforward – we want to help deliver a highly skilled and enterprising workforce. We have big ambitions for the college and believe we can play a vital role in helping people, businesses and communities across West Lothian to be successful.

These are exciting times for West Lothian.

A growing population, growing employment, major developments started in Winchburgh, and new possibilities coming through the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Deal. The college wants to ensure that people have the skills to get the most out of these possibilities. Building on a long history and solid foundations, we are confident we can do that.

Over 8,000 people take part in education and training with the college each year, two thirds on a part time basis. We support hundreds of modern and foundation apprentices, and deliver over 1,000 SVQs (Scottish Vocational Qualifications) in workplaces across Scotland. This year, around 1,800 employees in companies across West Lothian will benefit from training courses through the Flexible Workforce Development Fund. We deliver the third year of Napier University’s business degree at our campus – so far to 300 students over 10 years.

With a growing population and potential for growth in the economy, we want to do more for employers which, of course, will ultimately benefit our students. We need to know what that more looks like – is it more apprenticeships, more short courses, more support for generic skills like management and digital?

We want to make sure that everyone who studies at the college leaves with the skills and qualifications employers recognise and need, so that they can secure jobs that make the most of their talents. To achieve that we need to know more about employers, what skills they need now and what they’re likely to need in the future. Knowing this will help us to ensure that our courses and qualifications reflect industry requirements.

We’re keen to adopt new and more flexible ways of working to fit around employer expectations, so that training is delivered at a place and a pace that suits their needs – whether that’s full or part time courses, apprenticeships, at the college or in the workplace.

Although finances are tight in the college sector, we’re committed to keeping our facilities up to date and relevant so that they are close to what students will experience in the workplace. We’ve made good progress this year. For example, we have set up a simulated hospital ward for nursing and care students, we’ve just bought a hybrid vehicle and safety testing system for students working in the automotive industry, and in August we will launch a new centre for cyber security.

The dinner on 14 March was about recognising the excellent partnerships we have with hundreds of companies in West Lothian. It was also about establishing new relationships. Some of our guests didn’t already work with the college. By the end of the evening I know that everyone was keen to do so.


Award winning students make for an award winning restaurant

On the same day as the dinner, four of our students came top in their categories at the Scottish Culinary Awards in Glasgow – beating students in other colleges, and experienced chefs in the Sheraton Hotel, the RAF, the Royal Navy and Sodexo!

The students who prepared and served the food at the dinner are on a range of courses at the college including Professional Cookery and Hospitality. Events like this contribute to their learning experience and provide evidence for their course assessments. They help our students develop skills that are relevant to the sectors they aim to work in – and their skills speak for themselves!


The college’s training restaurant has received a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor five years in a row – making it West Lothian’s most highly rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. We’ve even been awarded a TripAdvisor Hall of Fame Certificate for these five consecutive years of high ratings from our customers – an outstanding endorsement of the high quality of our students and staff!

Welcoming to all  |  Students at the centre  |  Always striving for better

Graduation – a new dawn, a new day, a new life

I started as principal of West Lothian College in August this year.  On Saturday 27 October, I was very privileged and and felt very proud to join 230 graduating students and nearly 700 of their guests celebrate their success at our Graduation Ceremony.

Graduation is one of the most special days in the college year. A day devoted to recognising the tremendous achievements of our students and reflecting on what contributed to their success.

At West Lothian College, we want to inspire everyone who comes to college to reach their full potential. And one of the best ways to inspire others is through celebrating the success of our students. You are our best ambassadors. Your success inspires others in your families, the communities you live in, and the companies you work in.

We’re ambitious for all our students and every day we all work hard to help them progress on to good jobs, apprenticeships or university. I was delighted to read the Scottish Funding Council’s College Leaver Destinations 2016-17 report which shows that our students have the highest rate of positive destinations (97.3%) when they leave college of all other college regions outside of Glasgow, and the lowest rate of negative destinations (1.8%) of all regions.

Giving our students access to opportunities to enhance their learning is a contributory factor in achieving such high positive destinations. For example, last year more than a hundred students went abroad for work placements through a number of international projects.

One of our business students, Katelyn Livingston, won a scholarship to study the second year of her HND Business Management at a college in America. When she returns next year she will study the third year of BA Business at the college and complete the final year of the degree at Napier University.

And this year, some of our HNC Mechanical Engineering students took part in a multi award-winning Malaysian project with Mitsubishi. Being involved in experiences like this builds the confidence, skills and ambitions of students.

Central to our students completing their qualifications successfully are those who support you over the year – family, friends and fellow students.  Also fundamental to your success are the lecturers and all the other college staff who support you throughout your studies.

But the main contributor to your success is YOU.

You did the hard work to achieve your qualification. You managed their way through any difficulties you faced over the year. You kept going even when it was tough. And, having shown that determination, you should be confident in your ability to succeed in whatever next step you’ve chosen.

These days we’re told that graduates are likely to have many career changes throughout your life. That might sound a bit scary but there are things you can do to cope with those changes.

Stay interested in whatever you do, keep learning and don’t be afraid of change. This will help you get the most out of your career in the fast-moving world that we live in. Change will happen, and it’s better to learn to adapt to change and embrace it.

Build your networks. Connect with experts on platforms like LinkedIn, a great way to keep up-to-date with new developments, seek advice and get yourself noticed for that dream job you’re looking for.

Develop resilience and grit. Sometimes in life and work things go wrong – a bad boss, a poor career choice, a problem at work, a family crisis, ill health – physical or mental. Invest time in keeping yourself mentally strong, as this will help you cope with any challenges you face so that you come out of these situations stronger.

Finally, in whatever you do in life, be kind, be fair and treat people the way you want to be treated yourself. That way, you will be a better student, a better employee, a better manager, a better person.

Well done to all of you!

You’ve joined an exclusive club of people in West Lothian – that third of the population with higher education qualifications. Qualifications that are relevant to and sought after by employers in West Lothian and beyond.

Please keep in touch with the college. We would love to hear how you are getting on in whatever you’re doing now. And welcome you back to share your experiences with other students!

Shortening (and Expanding) the Learner Journey

This is the tenth year of West Lothian College’s partnership with Napier University, where we deliver year 3 of the BA Business Management degree at the college, and our students progress to fourth year honours or masters at university. Over 300 of our students have now studied this degree at college.

After graduating with a first class honours degree in June one of our BA Business Management students, Megan Waugh, is now working as a global logistics and supply chain management trainee at Danish multinational, Velux.

After the first year of her HND at college, she spent her second year at Clark College in Washington State. Current HND Business student, Katelyn Livingston, who finished the first year of her HND in June, is now attending Clark College in Vancouver, Washington in the US after securing one of the scholarships offered by West Lothian College. The Scottish Scholarship was awarded to Katelyn after a series of interviews. After a year of study at Clark College, she will return to West Lothian College where she will complete her Business Management degree.

Katelyn has settled into her home for the next year, saying “My experience has been wonderful so far. It’s been a very exciting time with lots happening like orientation, registering for classes and exploring a brand new beautiful city.“

Looking forward to classes starting at Clark College, Katelyn acknowledged the part that West Lothian College has played in getting her to this point after being out of education for some time. “West Lothian College helped me so much when it came to finding a clear path into further education and looking towards a career. It’s not always been easy but my time at college has definitely taught me that hard work pays off.”

When asked what advice she would give to anybody considering a course at West Lothian College Katelyn said, “Absolutely do it! The support, resources and opportunities available to students are great, particularly if you’re like me and returning to college after a few years out of education. If you’re willing to put in the effort the results will be worth it.”

Katelyn is relishing the year ahead and can’t wait to get started. “I feel like it was just a few days ago I sent my application for this opportunity, it’s a little bit surreal that I’m really here. I’m so excited to make the most of my time in US and for my classes to start!”

This long established arrangement between West Lothian College and Napier University is a great example of shortening the learner journey for HN students to achieve a degree, ensuring that there are no costly and demotivating duplicate years.

The scholarship, allowing students to study year two of their HND in America, expands the learner journey in value and experience – but not in time and cost!


This article was based on a case study on West Lothian College’s website.

GE are family!

Tracy Govan, Fraser Wallace, Jamie Hepburn MSP, Stephen McNab, Aiden McIntyre

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills visited Ayrshire College in July to launch year two of the Flexible Workforce Development Fund. Some of the employers who are taking advantage of the FWDF through the college to develop their workforce came along to share their experiences with the minister. One of these companies is Prestwick-based GE Caledonian, an aeronautical engine overhaul facility providing services for aviation engines and components as well as avionics, electrical power and mechanical systems for aircraft.

GE has worked with Ayrshire College for many years, a relationship which continues to improve with age. As well as taking advantage of the FWDF to train employees, the company has a long track record in developing its workforce through apprenticeships.

Central to the GE approach is Apprentice Leader, Stephen McNab who has grown and extended his apprenticeship family in the past two years to include foundation and graduate apprentices. He brought some of the GE family along to meet the minister – Aiden McIntyre, Aircraft Engine Mechanic, who completed his apprenticeship last year; Tracy Govan who is in the fourth and final year of her apprenticeship; and Fraser Wallace who has just completed his engineering foundation apprenticeship at Ayrshire College.

Thirteen new modern apprentices joined the GE family recently – all recruited from the college’s engineering students. They include Fraser Wallace who completed his engineering foundation apprenticeship in June. Fraser did his work experience with GE and they were so impressed with him that they offered him a contract a year ago! While Fraser could have started his modern apprenticeship with the company last summer, GE demonstrated their commitment to the foundation apprenticeship by encouraging him to complete it in his sixth and final year at school. Fraser is going straight into the second year of the modern apprenticeship because of the skills he developed over the past two years on the foundation apprenticeship.

Tracy Govan is in the fourth and final year of her apprenticeship at GE. Tracy worked in a supermarket for eleven years, before a change in company structure forced her to consider what she wanted to do.  She decided to change her career and do something completely different.  Tracy had always liked being hands-on and learning new things, so she went back to college to do the Performing Engineering Operations course. And, because of the skills she developed at college, she was recruited by GE straight into the second year of a modern apprenticeship!

Ayrshire College’s latest cohort of engineering foundation apprentices benefiting from a visit from GE’s Apprentice Mentor, Gordon (3rd from left)

For GE, it’s not just about the apprenticeship family. GE helps to bring learning to life for our full-time students by arranging for them to see leading edge technology in action in the workplace. They provide mentors for the college’s STEM activity with schools, for example at our Mission Discovery space school programme with senior phase students. And, they are great supporters of our This Ayrshire Girl Can campaign.

Stephen and Gordon, I salute you!

It has been an honour, a pleasure and a great laugh working with you and your colleagues over the last few years, and I look forward to watching your GE family grow from strength to strength.

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. 

Data changes everything!

First published in March 2017 on Ayrshire College Blog

On Tuesday 21 March, 150 people from the private, public and education sectors took part in our Ayrshire Bytes: Data Changes Everything conference at our Kilmarnock Campus. Vice Principal Jackie Galbraith explains why we applied to be part of DataFest17.

We were very proud to have been approved as an official fringe event of DataFest17 – the only one outside the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. DataFest17 was a week-long festival of data innovation from 20-24 March 2017 which showcased Scotland’s leading role in data on the international stage.

Leading figures from a range of industry sectors shared their views on how data and digital are changing everything we do. They included:

  • Gillian Docherty, chief executive of The Data Lab (the Innovation Centre which organises DataFest) who addressed the theme of the conference by taking us on a journey to 2035 and shared examples of how data will have changed our lives. You can watch Gillian’s fascinating talk here:

  • Brendan Faulds, former chief executive of the Digital Health & Care Institute (the Innovation Centre for health and care) who told the story of health and social care services in Scotland, the part data has played in its past and present, and the role it will play in shaping its future
  • Vicky Brock, chief executive of Clear Returns, who demonstrated how to use data to influence shopper behaviour
  • Richard Millar, senior manufacturing systems engineer at Spirit Aerosystems, who talked about the factory of the future
  • Craig Hume, managing director of Kilmarnock based Utopia Computers, who explained why honesty and openness are key to a more secure digital world.

Developing Ayrshire’s Digital Talent

Our ambition for Ayrshire is to enable its people, businesses and communities to have the skills to take advantage of the potential of digital technologies.

Central to that are students on digital and computing courses at the College, thirty of whom will take part in the conference. Their skills will be vital to enabling companies in every sector of the economy to benefit from developments like big data, the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0. The Scottish Government reported this month that an additional 12,800 digital skills roles are needed each year in Scotland. As well as in the digital industry, these jobs will be in sectors of the economy like finance, manufacturing, retail, health and tourism.

These jobs will only be filled if increasing numbers of people choose to develop the skills required and we are working hard to inspire more young people at school to choose courses which develop digital skills. Our hugely successful Coderdojo Ayrshire computing coding clubs for seven to seventeen year-olds have introduced hundreds of primary and secondary age young people to programming and developing apps.

On International Girls in ICT Day on 27 April, in partnership with SmartSTEMs, we are taking our #ThisAyrshireGirlCan campaign to a new level with a Technology Workout for 120 first and second year secondary school girls. As well as hearing from inspirational female speakers, the girls will take part in a wide range of interactive workshops led by industry and take part in our award-winning CoderDojo Ayrshire.

Supported by funding from the Developing the Young Workforce Ayrshire regional group, Ayrshire College has teamed up with Apps for Good, an open source technology education movement, to equip young people to research, design and make digital products and take them to market. Most children are consumers of technology. Apps for Good aims for young people to become makers using technology. Aimed at pupils in third year at secondary school this project will provide a pathway for young people prior to making their subject choices.

For fourth year pupils looking at their options for fifth and sixth year at secondary school the IT: Software Development Foundation Apprenticeship will be delivered in college two afternoons a week from August 2017. Find out more here.

Ayrshire – byte or be bitten

There is no doubt that data and the digital technologies that enable companies to analyse, visualise and act on it are disrupting the way we work, learn and play.

If you would like to speak to us about your digital skills needs, or you would like to support the work we are doing to encourage young people to pursue digital careers, please contact Moira Birtwistle at or Ged Freel at

ADAmant that we will attract more women into STEM!

First published in October 2016 on Ayrshire College Blog

Vice principal Jackie Galbraith shares her thoughts on the importance of recognising and celebrating women in STEM in the past, present and future.

It’s Ada Lovelace Day 2016, and Ayrshire College is ADAmant that we will attract more girls and women into science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM).

This is a key priority for us and we are working with schools, employers and national organisations to raise awareness of opportunities for women in STEM sectors, encourage take-up of STEM courses by girls and women, help students succeed on their courses, and connect female STEM students on different courses across the college, with students in other colleges and universities, and with women in industry.

Many people argue that there has never been a better time to be a woman in STEM. There are tens of thousands of high value, high quality jobs in sectors like digital and engineering. Employers don’t just need women to fill these jobs – they WANT them, because of the skills they bring! And, increasingly there are more diverse and equally valued routes to becoming a STEM professional – through college, apprenticeships and/or university.

But, we have a problem.

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. The proportion of young women taking STEM subjects at school, college and university is stubbornly low. And, incredibly, there is a smaller proportion of women studying and working in computing and digital technology now than when I was a computing student 30 years ago!

And yet, throughout history, women have played an important role in STEM . However, you need to seek them out! It’s important to recognise women from the past and present to stake our claim in this exciting world. Days like Ada Lovelace Day are about celebrating the pioneering, but often unknown or forgotten, work of women in fields like computing.

Women like Ada Lovelace, the mother of programming born 200 years ago who wrote the first ever computer programme 100 years before computers were even invented! Unlike her mentor Charles Babbage, whose analytical engine was the forerunner of the physical computer, Ada had the vision to imagine that a computer could create images and music, and not just do complicated sums.

Women like Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (soon to be recognised on a £10 bank note), born in 1780 who, despite living in an age when women were discouraged from studying science, is credited with an instrumental role in the discovery of Neptune. Mary was the young Ada Lovelace ‘s mathematics tutor and mentor.

Florence Nightingale’s infographic

Women like Florence Nightingale, well known for her dedication to injured soldiers during the Crimean War, but less famous for her mathematical ability. Florence’s analysis of large amounts of data, presented graphically ,demonstrated that significantly more men were dying from preventable diseases in hospital than from wounds inflicted in battle. This led to the government allocating funds to improve the cleanliness of hospitals. Hundreds of years before the terms ‘big data’, ‘data scientist’ and ‘data visualisation’ became the latest big things, Florence was a big deal!

It is not just rich, privileged women who have made an impact over the centuries. Jeannie Riley, one of many Glasgow female munitions workers during the First World War, dreamed of becoming an engineer. Sadly, when Jeanie’s husband and other men returned from the trenches in France, the aspirations of women like Jeanie were denied and they had to give up their jobs in industry.

Like Jeannie, American Mary Sherman Morgan dropped out of education during World War II to take a job at a munitions factory. After the war ended, she began working at North American Aviation as an aspiring rocket scientist. In the 1940s, an elite team of mathematicians and scientists started working on a project that would carry the US into space. Eventually becoming NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, what made it unusual was that many of those who charted the course to space exploration were women!

In January 2017, a new film tells the story of African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, whose calculations helped John Glenn became the first American astronaut to make a complete orbit of the Earth. Known as computers, these women played a critical role in space exploration.

It is important to recognise and celebrate the contributions of women scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians in the past. This is becoming easier with films like Hidden Figures and books like Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women who Propelled us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars.

It is even more important to acknowledge and promote women in STEM today. Today’s women in STEM include our own students and staff (click on the links to find out more). They include the STEM ambassadors in schools across Ayrshire, as well as women in STEM industry sectors making an impact on companies in the region.


Tomorrow’s women in STEM are the girls in today’s nursery, primary and secondary schools – some of whom are connecting to engineering, science, construction and technology through activities like Primary Engineer, the Bloodhound Challenge, and Ayrshire College’s Girls in STEM and CoderDojo workshops.

We remain ADAmant that we will challenge gender stereotyping in career and learning choices, and that we will encourage more girls and women to embark on exciting STEM courses.

If you’re just as ADAmant, please get in touch.

Who can be an engineer? This Ayrshire Girl Can!

First published in March 2016 on Ayrshire College Blog

For International Women’s Day, vice principal Jackie Galbraith talks about the efforts being made by Ayrshire College and the Ayrshire College Student Association to tackle gender imbalance in areas like engineering.

One hundred years ago this month, during the First World War, Glasgow munitions worker Jeannie Riley wrote to her husband who was stationed in France. In her letter she said:

“I am still sticking in at my work. I will be an engineer before long. There are 25 more women coming in on Monday and we were told that the amount of work we do in three weeks would have taken the men three years.” Sadly, Jeannie would not have had the chance to become an engineer – the jobs carried out by women during the war went back to the men when they returned.

Changes in society, medicine and technology in the UK over the past century have benefited women enormously. However, the proportion of women in the engineering workforce has not kept up with developments elsewhere. The 2015 IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) annual skills survey showed that just 9% of the engineering workforce is female, and only 6% of registered engineers and technicians are women.

Despite the heritage of women like Jeannie who broke into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) during and following the war, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.  And, while opportunities in engineering are growing, there is not a corresponding increase in the take-up by women.

I wonder what Jeannie would have thought about this?

Across the UK, companies are crying out for engineers – 64% of engineering employers say a shortage of engineers is a threat to their business. The average age of an engineer is 54 and there are not enough young people studying engineering to fill the projected growth in jobs. So, the industry is in real trouble if it continues to fail to attract young people, and young women in particular.

Some engineering companies are making concerted efforts to attract more young people and to address gender imbalance. On a recent visit to Spirit Aerosystems to meet third-year engineering apprentice Anna Manson, we were greeted with a poster which neatly summed up the company’s commitment to this. – Building bodies. Shaping Minds.

Spirit is focused on ‘equipping young people with the skills necessary to be successful’ because ‘the young minds we help shape today are the body builders of the future.’ This simple statement captures very well what developing the young workforce is all about.

Ayrshire has a higher proportion of manufacturing jobs than the Scottish average, which means that there continues to be great opportunities in engineering for young people in sectors like aerospace and life science.

Each year, throughout the year, Ayrshire College takes every opportunity to stimulate young people’s interest in STEM courses and careers, and to highlight and celebrate the contribution of girls and women in STEM. Last month, for example, we hosted a very successful Girls into STEM workshop for second year schoolgirls in East Ayrshire secondary schools.

This week, our Student Association is launching a film to mark the one-year anniversary of its #ThisAyrshireGirlCan campaign. The campaign celebrates women studying towards careers which are traditionally dominated by men such as engineering, technology and trades. It aims to address gender imbalance in these areas and show that if this Ayrshire girl can, any girl can!

During Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2016, the college launched a series of videos of young women working in engineering and manufacturing companies across Ayrshire, featuring apprentices like Anna Manson below. These apprentices describe what they actually do in the workplace and what motivated them to choose STEM as a career.

Have a look at the videos at

Research carried out by Olivia Jones at the National Centre for Universities and Business shows that young women don’t have an innate dislike for engineering. She found that when you emphasise the creative, people-based, problem-solving and environmental aspects of engineering girls start to see the appeal. Olivia said:

“We have to talk to girls about engineering honestly and in a way that they conveys how relevant and exciting it actually is. When girls are presented with real women who are engineers they can see that engineering doesn’t need to be dressed up to be interesting and that engineers are normal men and women who they can relate to.

I have no doubt that girls (and boys) will relate to the young women in the #ThisAyrshireGirlCan film produced by our Student Association and in the #WhatIActuallyDo videos created by the college. The female engineering apprentices featured in our blog back up Olivia’s research.

Who knows, if Jeannie Riley had lived in this century she might have ended up an engineering apprentice like Anna!


Tackling gender imbalance in colleges and universities – whose job is it anyway?

Published in June 2016 on the Ayrshire College Blog

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) held a workshop on 31 May 2016 to share the findings of research carried out by the Higher Education Academy which mapped the approaches being used to address gender imbalance in Scotland’s colleges and universities, to assess what approaches work best and why. The findings of the research are outlined in a report, Whose Job is it Anyway? Analysis of approaches to tackling gender imbalances at the subject level in Scotland’s colleges and universities.

The aim of the research was to:

  • Map initiatives in Scotland’s colleges and universities to tackle gender imbalances
  • Assess what approaches work best and why
  • Assess what approaches don’t work and understand what lessons can be learned
  • Recommend actions to achieve sustained improvements.

One of the key objectives in Ayrshire College’s 2014-17 Strategic Plan is to challenge gender stereotyping in career and learning choices. Significant efforts have been made on this priority for action over the past two years, and the work the College is doing to tackle gender imbalance in subject areas like care, engineering and computing was referenced extensively throughout the Higher Education Academy report.

At the workshop representatives from colleges, universities, NUS Scotland, Skills Development Scotland, Equate Scotland, the Equality Challenge Unit and the College Development Network heard presentations from Fiona Burns, Access Policy Lead at SFC and from the author of the research report, Dr Pauline Hanesworth from the Higher Education Academy.

Vice Principal Jackie Galbraith, a member of the SFC Gender Steering Group, took part in the workshop, along with Angela Alexander, Ayrshire College Student President and Jane Henderson, the College’s Developing the Young Workforce Manager.

In this article, Jackie outlines the challenges we are trying to address, summarises the conclusions of the report and describes the approach taken by Ayrshire College to tackling gender imbalance.

The context and the challenge

In June 2016, statistical publications from Skills Development Scotland (Modern Apprenticeship Statistics Full Year Report 2015/16) and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (Annual Statistics Report 2015) demonstrated that there is still much to do to address gender imbalance in Modern Apprenticeship frameworks, college courses and subject qualifications at school.

Scotland’s youth employment strategy, Developing the Young Workforce, has a KPI (key performance indicator) to reduce the number of Modern Apprenticeship frameworks with a 75:25 or worse gender balance to 60% of  frameworks by 2021. In 2015/16, 74% of MA frameworks had a gender balance of 75:25 or worse.

For colleges, one of the KPIs is to increase by five percentage points the minority gender share in each of the ten largest and most imbalanced subjects by 2021. These are long-term targets which rely on shifting deeply ingrained social and cultural factors. As an illustration of the challenge, look at female and male entries to Higher National Certificates/Diplomas in 2015.  The challenge continues at university and the following diagram, based on figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency published in February 2016, shows that the numbers of female graduates in areas like the physical sciences, computing and the built environment declined in 2015 compared to the previous year.

So, we have a problem. At a time when high quality, high value jobs abound in sectors like digital, the built environment and engineering, these industries persistently fail to attract women – despite considerable efforts by many employers and others to address this. Similarly, jobs growth in the early years sector is clear and the value of having more men in that sector is increasingly understood – yet the number of males continues to be low.

Enter the Scottish Funding Council’s gender action plan.

The SFC Gender Action Plan 

Fiona Burns outlined the ambitions set out in the Scottish Funding Council’s interim Gender Action Plan which was published in February 2016. By 2020, SFC is asking all colleges and universities to ensure that:

  • Actions to improve gender equality are mainstreamed
  • There are targeted approaches to tackling underrepresentation at a subject level
  • All widening participation initiatives will be focused on achieving more admissions from males and females.

By 2030, SFC is asking all colleges and universities to ensure that no subject has an extreme gender imbalance (75:25) and universities to reduce the gap between males and females in undergraduate study to five percentage points.

Fiona invited workshop participants to identify the key messages from the report that are of most useful in tackling gender imbalances, and what the SFC should do to enable the sectors to use the research to shape policy and practice. The outcomes from discussions on the day will inform the final version of the Gender Action Plan which is due to be published later in the summer.

Research findings

Dr Pauline Hanesworth presented the findings and recommendations of the research project, describing a framework of action. Seven themes for tackling gender imbalance effectively emerged in the research. These were:

  1. Strategic approaches – adopt a stronger strategic oversight that could maximise staff capacity and impact potential
  2. Mechanisms for success – capitalise on existing mechanisms
  3. Evidencing impact – develop understanding of what the results of tackling gender imbalances look like
  4. External enablers – connect to external activity
  5. Student involvement – support for the continuity and capacity of students as partners in tackling gender imbalances
  6. Cross-sector support – colleges and universities learning from each other’s specific experiences and expertise
  7. Subject focus – focus on all subject imbalances.

A framework for action, represented in the diagram below, was offered for consideration.

At the centre of the framework is a commitment to support subject choice and challenge gender stereotypes. Two foundations are required to support this commitment – institutional infrastructure and sector support.

1. Institutional infrastructure

  • Systems for strategic oversight and institutional commitment
  • Staff development and resource support
  • Mechanisms to develop and support effective relationships.

2. Sector support

  • Mechanisms for collaborative partnership working
  • Capacity and finance
  • Further research and resources.

Supporting these foundations are four areas of focus:

  1. Influencing the influencers
  2. Raising awareness and impacting on aspirations
  3. Encouraging applications
  4. Supporting student success

Finally, a number of enablers in the outer circle of the framework diagram were identified to ensure successful application of the model.

The main recommendations in the report are that colleges and universities should:

1. Develop institutional commitment to tackle student gender participation imbalances

2. Develop the capacity and motivation of all staff to tackle student gender participation imbalances

3. Adopt a theory of change methodology for the development of approaches

4. Develop holistic and longitudinal approaches that support young people throughout their educational choice process

5. Adopt a multi-pronged approach that combines the four areas of focus described above

6. Support student involvement in approaches through the development of student-led, student/staff co-created and student-delivered initiatives

7. Work in collaboration with other institutions and in partnership with other sectors

In addition, national sector agencies are encouraged to:

8. Develop a national campaign and strategy for tackling of gender inequality

9. Create a virtual and physical hub of and for practitioners tackling student gender participation imbalances

10. Broaden the remits of sector agencies and organisations to support the gender equality work of colleges and universities

The Ayrshire College approach

So, whose job is it to tackle gender imbalance in college and university courses? The Higher Education Academy report reached the conclusion that it is all of our jobs.

We agree, and well before this research was conducted we were already making progress on the recommendations subsequently outlined for colleges. Tackling inequalities underpins all of the College’s strategic documents including our Outcome Agreement and our work to address gender imbalance in careers and learning choices takes many forms.

Sparking an interest in STEM at a young age is very important and the College does this in a range of ways, for example by supporting Primary Engineer in primary schools, by running CoderDojo coding clubs (including girls-only clubs) for young people from the age of 7 and by organising STEM workshops for female pupils in college campuses. This interest in STEM needs to be sustained throughout primary and secondary school and onto college, and influencing those who influence young people’s subject and career choices is vital. For example, at our recent annual employers’ dinner the theme was tackling gender stereotypes in careers.

Central to our approach to tackling gender imbalance is working with students and we support the Ayrshire College Student Association’s  #ThisAyrshireGirlCan campaign to encourage women to study for careers which are traditionally dominated by men in areas like engineering, technology and construction. In March 2016, in partnership with the College, the Student Association created a film to celebrate female STEM students.

Working in partnership with local, regional and national organisations is important in tackling gender imbalance and underpins the Ayrshire College approach. Supported with funding from Skills Development Scotland, we produced a video series #WhatIActuallyDo to tackle gender imbalance in STEM apprenticeships by raising awareness of what apprentices actually do in their jobs. The short films featured five female engineering apprentices working in Hyspec Engineering, GSK, Prestwick Aircraft Maintenance, Spirit Aerosystems and Woodward. As well as interviews with the apprentices on what motivated them to pursue their chosen career and short films showing a day in the life of the apprentice, there are interviews with their employers talking about the benefits of apprenticeships to their companies.

The young women in these short films offer positive role models for others. One of the apprentices featured in the video series, Abbie Robb, reached the final for the Interconnect Scotland STEM Student of the Year award – the only apprentice and college student to do so! On International Women’s Day this year, Abbie spoke about her experience as an apprentice aircraft engineer to an audience of over 100 primary and secondary school girls and female STEM students.

When young women embark on STEM courses, we want to ensure they get the best possible experience which builds their confidence in moving on after college in the sector of their choice. On Monday 13 June we launched Ayrshire Connects – a mentoring network for female STEM students across the College to connect to each other, to students in other colleges and universities, to employers and women in the industry sectors they aspire to enter, and to senior pupils in secondary schools across Ayrshire. We are looking forward to working with Equate Scotland to connect the Ayrshire network to Interconnect Scotland.

ayrshire connects

Throughout the year, the College takes every opportunity to promote women in STEM by organising events and social media campaigns, for example around Girls in ICT Day in April every year and Ada Lovelace Day in October. Look out for new stories on our blog leading up to National Women in Engineering Day (#NWED16) on 23 June.

And, it’s not just about supporting women in male-dominated areas – we also have sustained activity to encourage boys and men into female-dominated sectors like care through our #ThisManCares campaign.

Follow us on social media to find out more about how we are tackling gender imbalance or get in touch with me at – we would love to hear from you.

Want to know more? Click on the links below

Whose Job is it Anyway? Higher Education Academy report

SFC Interim Gender Action Plan

Alison Malcolm, SFC Policy Officer – blog post on the SFC Gender Action Plan

#ThisManCares – Ayrshire College campaign to attract men into courses and careers in care

#ThisAyrshireGirlCan – Ayrshire College Student Association campaign to promote women in STEM

#WhatIActuallyDo – Ayrshire College video campaign highlighting female apprentices in science and engineering

Destination College – first choice for many, second chance for some, but not second best!

Yesterday (27 February), the Scottish Government published the latest destinations of school leavers in Scotland.

Today, journalists, politicians and others are trying to make sense of these figures – and, in some cases, not doing a very good job!

A BBC article reported that the “figures showed that the percentage signing up for university last year was 40.7%” and that “26.8% opted for a college course”.

That’s not the case.

The facts are that 40.7% of school leavers moved onto HE (higher education) courses and 26.8% moved onto FE (further education) courses. At least a quarter of those choosing to study HE qualifications do so at college, so a more realistic figure for school leavers going straight to university is around 30%. And, over 37% move onto college to study either FE or HE qualifications.

HE courses include HNCs (Higher National Certificates) and HNDs (Higher National Diplomas). Much of the increase in school leavers opting for HE study is down to more of them choosing HNC/Ds at college, sometimes with a view to progressing onto a degree at a later stage.

FACT – Each year, more school leavers go to college than university. College is the top destination for school leavers, whether they opt for FE or HE courses!

FACT – 41% of full-time Scottish entrants to higher education in 2015-16 were to college courses.

FACT – Colleges play a crucial role in providing access to HE for many people who otherwise would never consider it. In 2015-16, 14.8% of full-time first degree students lived in the most deprived 20% areas in Scotland. In the same year, 27.7% of full-time HE students at college were from these areas.

For most young people who start college straight from school, we are their first choice.

In the Ayrshire region, compared with the rest of Scotland, an even greater proportion of school leavers go straight to college than university to study further or higher education qualifications.

For other students, college is a second chance.

People who maybe left school and spent a few years in insecure, low-paid jobs or unemployed before deciding to do something more positive with their lives. People with significant life or work experience who have decided to pursue a new or different career. People who didn’t have the chance to pursue education after school.

First choice or second chance, colleges are not second best. We strive to ensure that all of our students have a first class experience.

That’s what I’ve seen in the four years I’ve been at Ayrshire College. Young, and not so young, lives transformed by the power of learning that prepares them for life, work or further education (including at university).

And, that’s why I get so exorcised when I see the contribution of colleges to building young people’s future being downplayed, albeit unintentionally, by misinterpretation of the facts.

My plea is simple … please report these statistics properly and help people understand how colleges help school leavers, and those who left school a while ago, to achieve their ambitions, whatever they may be.


In March 2018, the Scottish Government published an evidence report ‘Learner Journey: Analysis of Scottish education and training provision for 15 to 24 year olds‘ . The report is based largely on published data up to and including 2015-16 (my previous article Destination College – first choice for many, second chance for some, but not second best!’ analysed school leaver destinations for 2016-17).

The report contains lots of interesting data but it is flawed in how it presents school leaver destinations. Before I comment further on that, some general observations about the report.

Section 3 deals with College Provision in Scotland. While the focus in this chapter is on Further Education (FE) courses, there is a short section on HN (Higher National) qualifications on page 36. It is not made clear in this chapter focusing on FE that HNs are in fact Higher Education (HE) courses.

Section 5 on Transition between School and University makes no reference to HN Certificates and Diplomas as HE qualifications. Neither does it make clear that over a third of the 37.3% (in 2015-16) who moved onto HE from school do so at college!

According to UCAS, around 25% school leavers in Scotland move onto university. Subtracting that figure from the 37.3% moving onto HE and adding the 22.4% of school leavers who moved onto FE courses means that the reality is that 25% young people go to university from school and 34.7% go to college.

This means that colleges are the TOP destination for school leavers!

Myths that half of young people go to university persist and commentators regularly report that 50% young people go to university. I have tried hard – without success – to find statistical evidence for this claim. Based on the statistics in the report published in March, the only conclusion I can draw is that the 50% figure is a myth that has been around so long it’s become part of our folklore!

Countries like Austria, Germany and Switzerland celebrate and champion their vocational education systems. Indeed, in these countries most young people are proactively encouraged to follow vocational and technical routes at college.

These countries are proud of the majority of their young people who go to technical colleges or into apprenticeships on leaving school. They are also proud of the minority of their young people who move onto university.

Can we say the same in Scotland (and the UK) when commentators perpetually inflate the number of young people moving onto university from school and underplay the larger numbers who go to college?


Some in the education system say that a problem in attracting young people onto college courses – full time or delivered as part of the senior phase at school – is that most parents see university as the top destination to aspire to.

I don’t buy this.

First, more school leavers move onto college each year than university. For most of these young people, college is their aspiration, their first choice destination.

Each year in Scotland, three quarters of school leavers DON’T go to university yet the ‘university first’ myth persists.

For those school leavers who do aspire to go to university but don’t secure a place, college is a second chance to gain qualifications which will ultimately help them get onto a degree programme, often directly into second or third year.

Aspirations of young people and their parents vary – stay on at school, leave school to further their education at college or university, start a job, sometimes as an apprentice. All positive and valid aspirations. Very few people will disagree with this, but some don’t really believe it.

A recent research report, Can we put the ‘poverty of aspiration’ myth to bed now? by Morag Treanor from the University of Stirling, explodes the myth that poor parents have low or no aspirations for their kids’ education.

An interesting statement in the report is that the “literature emphasises that it is the structural elements of poverty, and the middle-class culture of education, that presents a barrier to children’s education and not a deficiency in parents’ or children’s aspirations.”

I work at Ayrshire College and have no doubt that parents of the vast majority of our younger students aspired for their daughters and sons to go to college as a first choice destination, not as a second best option.

Their aspirations are no less valid than those who aspire for their child to go to university.

All of us working in the education system need to believe this – and promote all pathways and destinations beyond school equally to young people.


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. 

No Wrong Path!

My early career choices 

My first career was in computing but I never planned to work in technology.

At school, I had a wide range of interests and achieved highers in Maths, Chemistry, English, German, Geography, History and Modern Studies. While I went through phases of liking particular subjects, my favourite subject throughout secondary school was English. A career in computing was nowhere on my radar – there weren’t even any computers in schools at the time!

When I was in my final year at school, I bowed to pressure from teachers to apply for university. At the time I was interested in African politics, prompted by the brutal murder of Steve Biko by the apartheid regime in South Africa, so I thought ‘if I’m going to be forced to go to university I’ll study something I’m really interested in and go as far away from home as possible!”

Big mistake!

I went to the University of Sussex to study African and Asian studies but, as I had neither the confidence nor the desire to survive at university and missed home, my stay at Brighton was a short one!

I returned to Scotland and spent the next few years in and out of jobs at a time of economic recession and high youth unemployment. In the mid-1980s, aged 25, I went back to full-time study to do a BSc Computer Information Systems at Glasgow College of Technology.

My husband and I had just had our first child, taken out our first mortgage – just as interest rates began to soar – and we needed to increase our family income. So, my motivations for choosing a computing degree were vocational and financial. It was a growing industry sector and I knew I was likely to get a good job with decent money when I graduated.

And I did!

If you’re interested in signs that I was destined for a job in tech, read the section at the end of this blog post.

Whirlwind tour of my career 

I started my career in manufacturing at Motorola Semiconductors where I did some programming, supported the computer network and trained staff on packages like Harvard Graphics (Microsoft Office hadn’t yet appeared on the scene!) I wasn’t the best programmer, but my boss described me as a ‘great de-bugger’ (at least I think that’s what he said) because I could spot a misplaced punctuation mark a mile away! My forensic approach to grammar and punctuation served me well here and in my future career.

Next, I worked at AVEX Electronics where I was responsible for introducing and installing a computer network across three sites. This is where I really discovered the power of digital networks, and the potential they opened up for individuals within and outwith an organisation to share information and collaborate on projects.

Designing and delivering training courses to support employees through a major systems change sparked an interest in learning and I applied for a lecturing post at the University of Paisley. Here, as well as teaching about computer networks, I became interested in learning with networked technology and I was an early pioneer of developing online courses.

I took this interest forward when I became director of learning at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, and assistant chief executive at Learning and Teaching Scotland, where I led departments responsible for educational software development and technology training courses for schools, colleges and universities.

In 2000, I organised one of the first large-scale educational conferences to be broadcast live online across the world (Fusion2000 which ultimately evolved into the Scottish Learning Festival), and managed a project team responsible for implementing the National Grid for Learning (the precursor to Glow) to enable schools across Scotland to access educational resources on the Internet.

I became interested in the policy underpinning education and lifelong learning in Scotland, and developed this further when I joined the Scottish Government in 2003. In my ten years in government most of the roles I had related to skills and employment not technology, although I was responsible for e-learning policy for a couple of years.

I took up a role as vice principal at Ayrshire College in 2013 where I had a wide range of responsibilities including our management information systems and data analytics. So, although I was involved at a different level than when I set out over 30 years ago, I’d kind of come full circle in my career!

No wrong path

Two years ago this week I became principal of West Lothian College. The skills and experience I have acquired in my long and varied career are being put to good use in this role, and I am very excited about the possibilities for the college in the years ahead.

When I left school I really had no idea what career I wanted. I made a few choices early on that led me down a path I didn’t want to follow. So I changed direction!

Throughout my career I’ve chosen a different career path when it felt right for me – so far I’ve had seven major career changes and worked for eleven different employers!

Sometimes it wasn’t obvious – even to me – what the connection between one career and another was. People close to me often thought I was making risky decisions and advised me against them. But I always did what felt right for me and, although there were some strange turns along the way, none of the paths I chose led to a dead end. 

When I look back over my career pathway, although my route has been long and winding, there was no wrong path. Every twist and turn, even the occasional dead-end, led to new insights into what drove me and those insights led me to my next destination. 

If I went back to the future and keyed my current destination into a career sat-nav when I left school, I’m sure it wouldn’t have suggested the route I’ve travelled. My path was fuelled by my passion for what I was interested in at the time and I wouldn’t change that for the world!

The early signs that I was a techie

Although I didn’t set out to have a career in technology, when I look back to my childhood and early adulthood, the signs were there – but neither I nor my parents and teachers spotted them. Seems like I’ve always had an affinity with technology and gadgets – I just never imagined how that could link to a career! Here is my retrospective detective work on how Jackie ended up in tech.

Late 1960s

When I around seven years old I asked for a ‘modern’ electronic till for Christmas. This was cutting edge technology at the time! I had just started to see them in large shops and was fascinated. You can see from the buttons on the till that this was before decimalisation (basing currency on multiples of 10 and 100). On 14 February 1971 when I was eight years old, there were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. The next day the pound was made up of 100 new pence!


I got a tape recorder for my tenth birthday and used it to record family sing-songs, the chart countdown every Sunday on the radio (we couldn’t afford to buy singles), and spending hours asking family and friends “What do you think of polo mints?” (a popular TV advert at the time although I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers this!) 


When I was eleven, I won a prize for General Excellence in Primary 7. The prize was a book token – worth a mighty 15p! – and the book I bought was ‘The Telephone’, a Ladybird book about telecommunications. Two men were responsible for my interest in telephones – the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and my dad who was a telephone fitter. In the 1960s and 1970s, my family moved around Scotland as my dad helped setup telephone exchanges from Lanark to Inverness. Communication is a thread that weaves through my career.

Early 1970s

As a young teenager in my third year at secondary school, I asked for a Chemistry Set and microscope for Christmas. I had chosen Chemistry as one of my O-Grades (older readers will remember these, in later years they were superseded by Standard Grades, Intermediates and now Nationals). I became interested in Physics and did a crash O-Grade in fifth year at school. I started the Higher in sixth year – the only girl in a class full of boys. That didn’t bother me, but my teacher was openly hostile to having a girl in his class. I decided that I wasn’t going to subject myself to his taunts and I left the course. Decades later, I’m still annoyed at myself for letting him win!


In the early 1980s, I campaigned against rising rates of youth unemployment.  I had a talent for designing leaflets but it was becoming a chore to type these on a manual typewriter when it was very difficult to judge the space required for text. I bought a Canon Typestar 5 electronic typewriter which revolutionised how I drafted documents. I could now type a line of text, review it on the 15-digit display (yes, you read that correctly) and make any changes before hitting return to print it onto the sheet of paper! I used this brilliant wee machine to type up essays throughout my degree study. It wasn’t until I worked in industry that I had access to the new personal computers (PCs) which had just arrived on the scene.


A couple of years before I started my computing degree I bought my first computer – a Commodore Plus/4! Fairly radical at the time, I was able to programme in Basic. It even had some rudimentary application software built in, for example a word processor and spreadsheet.


IT Now? Feels pretty much like IT past!

Taking advantage of a quiet Sunday morning, I settled down to read the latest edition of IT Now, the magazine for British Computer Society (BCS) members, to catch up on what’s going on in the digital world. 

As I read through the articles, something didn’t quite compute. I didn’t put my finger on it until around page 48 when I realised that the author of the piece I was about to read had something in common with all but one of the authors of previous articles – he was male! 

I hadn’t been aware of the gender of the authors before I read each piece. In fact, and apologies to the writers, I went straight into the substance of each story without reading the introductory preamble. But the further I got into the magazine, the more uneasy I felt. This unease was more intuitive than rational but, having been around digital technologies for nearly 30 years, I knew something was not quite right.

I was curious to find out if this was out of the ordinary, so I logged into the BCS members’ portal to have a look at previous editions of IT Now. Here’s how many substantive articles were written by women – 

  • Spring 2016 edition: 1 out of 24 – 4% 
  • Winter 2015 edition: 5 out of 24 – 21%
  • Autumn 2015 edition: 4 out of 24 – 17%
  • Summer 2015 edition: 2 out of 26 – 8%

Should I be surprised? 

Perhaps not, after all the magazine is pretty representative of the IT industry, ie overwhelmingly male! The imagery is very male (except when there are stories about women in IT) and the editorial team is all male. The latter, in itself, is not a problem if there is good awareness of unconscious bias and a genuine commitment to diversity.

Why so male? 

Maybe women BCS members are not submitting articles to the editorial team. If that is the case, it’s not good enough to accept it. Good editors will strive for balance and diversity, and proactively seek stories from women in the industry. Not in a tokenistic way, but to improve the quality of the magazine for both female and male readers, and to ensure that female BCS members and women in the industry generally identify and engage with it.

This wouldn’t bother me so much if I wasn’t aware that excluding the female voice and perspective continues to affect young women in the industry – many feeling as lonely and isolated as I did over a quarter of a century ago. 

In an era of growing digital dominance, the industry is crying out for young people and women to fill critical roles to enable growth. Progress made through initiatives to persuade women that the IT sector is right for them risks being undone if what they encounter when they enter the industry continues to be testosterone heavy!

Come on, BCS – you really must do better! 

When the numbers don’t add up …

On the news recently, I heard that Italian coastguard was trying to find and save 1,000 migrants in difficulty on the Mediterranean Sea (over 2,000 were subsequently rescued). In the same week, 300 migrants travelling in dinghies died when they ran into stormy weather after leaving Libya. According to the UNHCR, over 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2014. 

More than 200,000 people were rescued during the same period, many pulled from the sea as a result of an Italian operation known as Mare Nostrum. This operation was launched in October 2013 in response to a tragedy near Lampedusa in which 366 people died. It ended when the governments of EU member states voted to stop it, because they believed that the prospect of being saved was encouraging an ever increasing number of people to make the perilous journey to the European mainland.

Migration and the exodus of people from the horrors of war, persecution, hunger are not new issues. I don’t claim to be particularly knowledgeable about all the issues surrounding this highly charged, political topic. However, I do know that many politicians and political parties have a disgraceful and disgusting attitude to these most vulnerable of people, reducing them to numbers and dehumanising them in the process. 

The UK Coalition Government’s commitment to reduce the number of immigrants in the UK from the hundreds to the tens of thousands was a cheap attempt to capitalise on the ignorance and fear of a large proportion of the population, who believe the number of immigrants in the country to be far greater than it actually is. And, the closer we get to the UK general election, the more likely it is that the numbers don’t add up!

Almost without exception, the press can’t get enough of stories about large numbers of immigrants ‘taking our jobs’ and ‘draining our resources’. Very rarely are distinctions made between asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. There is some honest coverage, notably in the Guardian, where the numbers start to reveal themselves as human beings. Human beings like Moaaz, Majd, Rasha, Kinan and Khalid – friends who fled war-torn Syria on a perilous trip to reach Europe. They filmed their journey which you can watch here

Giving the unheard ‘numbers’ a voice

Poet Holly McNish has written a few hard-hitting poems about immigration, including Ocean Floor which is specifically about the plight of desperate people who take to the sea in search of a better life. Have a listen here.

Joan Baez recorded a heartbreaking version of ‘Deportees’, about migrant Mexican workers dying in a plane crash while being deported from the US after their work contracts had expired. The media of the time (particularly the New York Times) dehumanised the tragedy with a dismissive reference to 28 deportees dying in the crash whilst naming the crew members who died. Listen here.

Helping asylum seekers

I’ll end on a positive note.

There are many people and organisations providing support and hope to asylum seekers who reach our country. United Glasgow Football Club was formed in 2011 to provide a point of access to regular, structured football for those who would usually find themselves excluded; financially or by discrimination. It was formed primarily to help refugees and asylum seekers, and anti-discrimination and financial inclusion are the club’s guiding principles. By keeping costs to a minimum, and not charging players for games or training, the club brings together individuals from communities who otherwise may not have met through a shared love of football. Find out more about United Glasgow FC and the ethos it promotes by watching the following films.

Recent publications reinforce the importance of work experience for school, college and university students

One of the consequences of the economic recession of the late 2000’s, which resulted in large rises in youth unemployment across the world, was a renewed focus on how well education systems were preparing young people for work. An important aspect of this was on how schools, colleges and universities could work better with employers, for example in relation to work experience.

Numerous reports since then have reinforced the value of work placements for students and unemployed young people, and this article summarises the conclusions of three recent publications on this topic.

Catch 16-24: Youth Employment Challenge

February 2015 saw the publication of the latest youth employment challenge report Catch 16-24 from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). Its 2014 Employer Perspectives Survey found that the young people employers recruit are generally well prepared for work – the main thing they lack is experience rather than literacy or numeracy.

The UKCES report reminds us that many young people remain caught in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to getting on in today’s labour market – they can’t get work without experience and can’t gain experience without work! This is compounded by the fact that the proportion of 16 and 17 year olds combining full-time education with a part-time job has halved in fifteen years – less than a quarter of teenagers now combine school with work!

Two thirds of employers say work experience is a significant or crucial factor in their recruitment, yet most aren’t engaged with schools and colleges to offer the placements necessary to enable young people to gain experience. Who you know and where you live impact significantly on the work experience opportunities available to young people, and there are significant regional variations as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 Whether establishments have had a student on placements in previous 12 months, by region IMG_0974

The UKCES reports reinforces the need for the worlds of education and employment to be better connected to prepare young people for the world of work. It stresses that all schools, colleges and universities should have links with local businesses to help inform and inspire young people about the breadth of career opportunities available to them. Importantly, it recommends that contact with the world of work should be an ongoing part of every young person’s education. In Scotland, the Invest in Youth Groups, which will be funded by the Scottish Government, will play a critical role in linking employers and education.

Work placements in university degrees

National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) published a report in January 2015, Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science.

The report provides evidence that work placements improve the employment record of computer graduates in the UK. However, not all universities offer placements and, despite efforts to support work placements for undergraduates, demand from students in computer science is low, especially for sandwich placements.

There is an increasing demand for shorter placements from students and employers, and NCUB recommends that universities should focus on increasing demand and monitoring the impact of all placements. In Scotland, a range of placement programmes have been introduced to fulfil demand in areas like computing and engineering. For example, e-Placement Scotland is an industry-backed programme run by Edinburgh Napier University, e-skills UK and industry body ScotlandIS, funded by the Scottish Funding Council. Careerwise is a Scottish Government funded programme which aims to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers through the provision of paid work placements key sectors like engineering and technology.

Author’s aside – Sandwich satisfied my hunger for understanding

In 1987, I returned to full-time education to do a computing degree. Aged 25, with a new baby and an even newer mortgage, my motivation for this was very simple – to get a decently paid job in the growing IT industry!

I was offered places by two universities and two technical colleges, and quickly discarded the two universities because they didn’t offer a sandwich placement. I chose what was then called Glasgow College of Technology (now Glasgow Caledonian University) and spent my third year as a Trainee Systems Analyst at Motorola Ltd.

I have no doubt that I learned more about computing in my year in industry than in my first two years at university. The skills and experience I gained built my confidence, enhanced my knowledge and developed my expertise in the subject, all of which led to me winning the IBM prize for top student in my final year. And my salary of around £7500 for the year was a very welcome addition to our family income at a time when interest rates were hitting the roof and we were struggling to pay our mortgage!

Developing the Young Workforce

In December 2014, the Scottish Government published Developing the Young Workforce, which sets out how it will implement the recommendations from the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, established in January 2013 to explore how to develop a modern, responsive and valued system for vocational training. The Commission’s final report Education Working for All! was published on 3 June 2014 and set out 39 recommendations.

Developing the Young Workforce sets out how the Scottish Government aims to implement the recommendations of the Commission. Work experience for young people in school and college is a key aspect of this, and the strategy includes plans for a new standard for work experience in schools, as well as a new focus on work experience and the quality of careers guidance as part of secondary school inspection programme. For colleges, it wants young people to benefit from better work-related learning experiences, supported by a new standard for work experience for colleges.

The strategy sets out plans for engaging with employers on a more systematic basis by engaging with existing industry-led groups and establishing new industry-led groups in parts of the country where they do not currently exist. The hope is that these Invest in Youth groups will play an important role in coordinating the involvement of employers in schools and colleges.


Work experience matters. Few disagree with this. But more commitment from all concerned is needed, so that all students and jobless young people have access to high quality work placements.

Links for further reading

  • Developing the Young Workforce, Scottish Government Youth Employment Strategy, December 2014
  • Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science, National Centre for Universities and Business, January 2015
  • Key issues in employer engagement in education: why it makes a difference and how to deliver at scale, UK Edge Foundation and Skills Development Scotland, January 2015
  • Catch 16-24, UK Commission for Employment and Skills Youth Employment Challenge Report, February 2015

  • STEM doesn’t need a ‘girly’ image to attract females but its image does need to change

    Every October, individuals, groups and organisations across the world celebrate women in science, technology and engineering by remembering Ada Lovelace, who is acknowledged as a pioneer of computer programming.

    As well as reminding or introducing us to women in history and the present who have or are making major contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the week is also about encouraging more girls and women to choose to study and work in STEM areas.

    From an economic perspective, this drive for female recruits is neither altruistic nor based on an equalities agenda. The UK needs an additional 87,000 graduate-level engineers each year between now and 2020, and there are predicted to be 11,000 IT job opportunities each year. Yet women represent only 7 per cent of the professional engineering workforce according to the Institute of Engineering and Technology and just 17 per cent of the IT workforce.

    Filling these job vacancies won’t be possible without persuading tens of thousands of people, including women to join these industries. But, there’s a problem. Despite significant efforts in recent years, there has been very little improvement in the numbers of women choosing STEM as a career. Indeed, the percentage of women in IT is reducing and is lower than it was twenty years ago!

    In a recent article, Guardian journalist Jess Zimmerman summed up the problem of getting women into these sectors and keeping them.

    We tend to talk about the “pipeline problem” of women in science and technology as if the only difficulty is funneling girls into the pipe, at which point they can just waterslide into the pool of gainful employment. But the problem isn’t (or isn’t only) the flow of girls into the pipeline. The problem is that the pipeline is leaky. The even bigger problem is that the pipeline is plugged. Anyone who slides all the way to the end will fetch up against a blockage of lazy, retrogressive attitudes about how women should behave.

    Very few disagree that this is a problem and in the past year there has been a large spike in the number of studies, reports, campaigns and government policy commitments seeking to reverse these trends.

    In the 1970s, American folk singer Peggy Seeger wrote a song called I’m Gonna Be An Engineer which makes fascinating listening about the low expectations of women just a few decades ago. What strikes me most about the tone of the song is the determination to fight against all the odds – parents, husband, teachers, employers – to pursue the ambition of becoming an engineer. You can listen to Peggy singing this song here. The lyrics are included at the end of this post.

    Although things have changed to some degree in the four decades since the song was written, it’s depressing to think that the concept of being an engineer is still such an alien and unattractive one for women. As a woman who started her career as an IT specialist in the mid 1980s, I’ve seen many cycles of campaigns to persuade women to choose computing and other STEM areas. Such are the odds stacked against them, most of these campaigns have been remarkably unsuccessful. In the IT sector I chose to enter, the numbers of women choosing computing science went into freefall in the mid-1980s, the decline continued through the late 1990s when it levelled off only to drop significantly again in the first decade of this century. This podcast discusses how the image of computing contributed to this decline.

    Getting the image right

    The remainder of this article offers some observations on the role that stereotypical images play in turning women away from choosing to study or work in STEM.


    A lot of fuss was made this year when Lego launched its Research Institute set which features three female scientists. On the plus side, at least it didn’t resort to ‘girlifying’ the characters the way that they did when the company introduced the Lego Friends series where the girl characters morphed into something more akin to junior Barbie! Going large on pastel colours, these sets reinforced gender stereotypes of girls as carers and home makers, rather than creators and engineers.


    What a departure from the company’s original approach when it was all about building wonderful constructions out of small plastic bricks in glorious primary colours! And what a shame because, as the advert below shows, at the outset Lego was a non-gendered toy marketed in the same way to girls and boys. Indeed, included in the “10 Characteristics for LEGO” set out in 1963 was that LEGO was ‘for girls and boys’.


    Challenge negative images

    In October 2014, engineering company Aerohydraulics caused a bit of a twitter storm when the cover of its 2013-14 product catalogue caught the attention of the Women’s Engineering Society and ScienceGrrls (the 2014-15 catalogue wasn’t much better!) who encouraged people to contact the company to express their discontent.


    After being contacted by a number of women, the company responded within 24 hours, apologised and agreed to adopt a new approach to marketing its products! The letter from the company below demonstrates some real learning. Let’s hope the company follows through.


    Should have known better – must do better!

    More alarming in my opinion are those who should know better, who indeed do know better, but unintentionally portray stereotypical imagery to promote the STEM sector. The following examples are visual imagery from organisations very conscious of the absence of women in the sector. Indeed, two of the three examples are/were intended to encourage more women into science, technology and engineering!

    The most recent example is the latest poster from the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). WES has done a very good job in its 95 year history to encourage women to become engineers, scientists and technologists. And, as you have just read, they were instrumental in gaining a commitment from Aerohydraulics to stop using negative images of women in its promotional material. However, its campaign to encourage girls and women into engineering based on a pink cupcake is deeply disappointing, patronising and borderline offensive.


    Much worse was the video produced by the European Commission a couple of years ago to support its Science: It’s a Girl Thing initiative. More akin to a trailer for a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ film, the Commission was forced to remove it due to the overwhelmingly negative feedback it received. Did the commissioners of this video really believe that lipstick and catwalk poses would persuade young women that science was a girl’s thing? Incredible!

    The final example is not an image designed to attract women into the IT sector; it was about attracting people to a major conference. However, the IT sector is desperately short of skilled people and attracting women is acknowledged in the recently published Skills Investment Plan for Scotland’s ICT and Digital Technologies Industry as a way to tackle this skills shortage.

    ScotlandIS is the trade body for the digital technologies industry in Scotland, with a remit that includes raising the profile of the industry. The image of this sector is particularly unappealing to women if the falling number of women entering it is anything to go by. Unfortunately, the posters used this year to attract people to Scotland’s largest annual IT conference, ScotSoft, reinforced this image by failing to show that women might have an interest in the sector!


    Let’s take gender out of science, technology and engineering

    Attempts to lure girls and young women into science, technology and engineering will ultimately fail if they are dressed up in lipstick, pastel colours and high heels. Well-meaning at best, they completely miss the point.

    Olivia Jones, Project Manager at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) explained recently why we have to stop trying to ‘girlify’ engineering. Her research shows that young women don’t have an innate dislike for engineering. She claimed that when you emphasise the creative, people-based problem-solving, and environmental aspects of engineering they start to see the appeal.

    We have to stop treating engineering like a hated vegetable, to be snuck in under a thick coating of sickly sauce, and talk to girls about engineering honestly and in a way that they conveys how relevant and exciting it actually is. When girls are presented with real women who are engineers they can see that engineering doesn’t need to be dressed up to be interesting and that engineers are normal men and women who they can relate to.

    The image of STEM is a major, although not the only, barrier to attracting female talent. In presenting an image which would be attractive to females and males, let’s remove gender references and focus on the positive aspects of what it means to be an engineer, computing scientist, etc.

    A report from the Royal Academy for Engineering this year, Thinking like an engineer: Implications for the education system, offers fresh insights into the ways engineers think. It suggests ways in which the education system might be redesigned to develop engineers more effectively. It argues that engineers make things that work or make things work better, and that they do this in quite particular ways. The report identifies six engineering habits of mind which describe the ways engineers think and act: Systems thinking; Adapting; Problem-finding; Creative problem-solving; Visualising; and Improving.

    I can see some great visual imagery based on these habits of mind, can you?

    I’m Gonna Be An Engineer Lyrics

    When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy
    I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys
    Everybody said I only did it to annoy
    But I was gonna be an engineer

    Momma told me, Can’t you be a lady
    Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
    Wait until you’re older, dear, and maybe
    You’ll be glad that you’re a girl

    Dainty as a Dresden statue
    Gentle as a Jersey cow
    Smooth as silk, gives creamy milk
    Learn to coo, learn to moo
    That’s what you do to be a lady now

    When I went to school I learned to write and how to read
    Some history, geography and home economy
    And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need
    To while away the extra time until the time to breed
    And then they had the nerve to say, What would you like to be
    I says, I’m gonna be an engineer

    No, you only need to learn to be a lady
    The duty isn’t yours, for to try and run the world
    An engineer could never have a baby
    Remember, dear, that you’re a girl

    So I become a typist and I study on the sly
    Working out the day and night so I can qualify
    And every time the boss come in he pinched me on the thigh
    Says, I’ve never had an engineer

    You owe it to the job to be a lady
    It’s the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl
    The wages that you get are crummy, maybe
    But it’s all you get cos’ you’re a girl

    She’s smart (for a woman)
    I wonder how she got that way
    You get no choice, you get no voice
    Just stay mum, pretend you’re dumb
    That’s how you come to be a lady today

    Then Jimmy come along and we set up a conjugation
    We were busy every night with loving recreation
    I spent my day at work so he could get his education
    And now he’s an engineer

    He says, I know you’ll always be a lady
    It’s the duty of my darling to love me all her life
    How could an engineer look after or obey me
    Remember, dear, that you’re my wife

    As soon as Jimmy got a job I began again
    Then, happy at my turret-lathe a year or so, and then
    The morning that the twins were born, Jimmy says to them
    Kids, your mother was an engineer

    You owe it to the kids to be a lady
    Dainty as a dish rag, faithful as a chow
    Stay at home, you’ve got to mind the baby
    Remember you’re a mother now

    Every time I turn around there’s something else to do
    It’s cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two
    I listen in to Jimmy Young, it makes me want to spew
    I was gonna be an engineer

    Now I really wish that I could be a lady
    I could do the lovely things that a lady’s s’posed to do
    I wouldn’t nearly mind if only they would pay me
    And I could be a person too

    What price – for a woman
    You can buy her for a ring of gold
    To love and obey (without any pay)
    You get a cook and a nurse, for better or worse
    No you don’t need a purse when a lady is sold

    But now that times are harder, and my Jimmy’s got the sack
    I went down to Vickers, they were glad to have me back
    But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
    And I’m a first-class engineer

    The boss he says, We pay you as a lady
    You only got the job cos’ I can’t afford a man
    With you I keep the profits high as may be
    You’re just a cheaper pair of hands

    You’ve got one fault, you’re a woman
    You’re not worth the equal pay
    A bitch or a tart, you’re nothing but heart
    Shallow and vain, you got no brain
    You even go down the drain like a lady today

    I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
    I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
    But if I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
    And an underpaid engineer

    I’ve been a sucker ever since I was a baby
    As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
    But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
    I’ll fight them as an engineer