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INSIDE TRACK: Top marks for providing learning in communities

Many people haven't heard of the West Highland College (WHC).

Some of those who have think it has something to do with Skye's acclaimed Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig

But WHC is an emerging educational gem in its own right. Part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), it was formed only in 2010 as a result of the merger of Lochaber College and Skye and Wester Ross College.

The significant achievements in its short life have been recognised by HM Inspectors from Education Scotland whose "overarching judgment" is that the college is effective, the highest award.

In particular the inspectors praised the college's engagement with local communities, saying: "It has established a network of 10 learning centres across a wide geographic area to meet the needs of the dispersed rural communities it serves and to address the traditionally low uptake of further education in the West Highlands ... It is the main post-16 learning provider in the region, serving approximately 40,000 people."

It provides for 3000 full and part-time students at the grassroots, from Gairloch's community centre and Ullapool's old harbour office to former industrial units in Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the High School at Strontian down the road.

The other centres are at Auchtertyre near Kyle of Lochalsh , Fort William, Kinlochleven, Mallaig, Broadford and Portree High School, as well as in a £2.5 million building funded, built and occupied in one year.

It's about as local a delivery of learning as you can have, short of holding seminars on common grazings or in public bars.

But the range is ambitious and relevant. There is the new BA (Hons) adventure tourism management course that is "the only degree of its type operating in a wild, rural location". There is also a recently validated MSc in ecotourism.

In addition, there is a National Certificate in fashion and textiles and one in shipping and maritime operations, an HNC in events management and a Higher in mental health care.

Crucially, a survey found 90% of students said they were learning extremely well; 90% felt extremely happy with the pace of learning and timetabling; 95% that they were being taught to a high standard, and 87% that the college was doing a very good job catering for students' needs.

The indefatigable Michael Foxley (crofter, former Lochaber GP, past local councillor and one-time leader of the Highland Council) was chairman of Lochaber College and of WHC since its inception.

He is understandably proud of WHC. "Even a couple of decades ago everybody left for the city and got on a bus to get to Inverness College or a poorly paid seasonal job locally," he says.

"WHC is all about giving people who have young families, aged parents or little money a chance to study in their own communities.

"But it is also about giving a second chance to those who need it, regardless of the reason. That is vitally important."

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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