With the mantra of ‘get in, get through and get on’, South Lanarkshire College Principal Aileen McKechnie believes her establishment’s dedication to equality is crucial to economic prosperity in Scotland’s post-pandemic landscape. By Colin Cardwell

Daily life has changed at South Lanarkshire College (SLC) in East Kilbride as the Covid-19 pandemic presents new challenges for staff and students alike. Usually welcoming and vibrant communal areas are changed, with clear signage to support Covid safety, with face masks, remote learning and one-way systems now a familiar part of the routine.

Aileen McKechnie, principal and chief executive of the college, says: “In the current climate, health, safety and wellbeing have been at the heart of all of our activity and we have worked hard to ensure our campus is Covid secure for our college community”. 

Teaching was reintroduced on a blended learning basis in August with a mixture of remote and classroom learning to meet the safety guidelines published by the Scottish Government while digital poverty among students is being addressed by the loan of more than  200 laptops and broadband dongles where needed, with increased access to IT training for students and staff.

She adds that virtual support is available on a 24/7 basis to address the mental welfare of students. “Tertiary education can present new challenges and this is a particularly difficult time,” she says. “If students have any concerns it’s important that they ask for the one-to-one help, support and counselling available and there are free weekly mindfulness and yoga classes (virtual), resilience workshops and a pastoral support service.”

“We had a virtual freshers’ week at the start of term and the Student Association, supported by my student services team, worked very hard to provide games, quizzes and workshops which – though digital – were all well received and we’re determined to make sure the student experience is as good as it possibly can be,” she says.

What the current crisis will not deflect the college from, however, is a firm belief that equality and diversity in education and skills provision is crucial to secure the future social and economic prosperity of Scotland.

“By ensuring fair distribution of the opportunities necessary for all of our people to flourish, Scotland will maximise the social and economic potential of some of our finest talents. We are absolutely passionate about the opportunities that education brings to everyone and that means providing an equal and inclusive environment for all our staff and students,” she says.

“One of our mantras is to help to get all students to ‘get in, get through and get on’ – and that includes the pre-admission support that might be necessary right through their experience at the college to the stage when they either move to another course here, into university or a modern or graduate apprenticeship or into employment.”

Like other urban areas of Scotland, South Lanarkshire, from where over 70% of its students come, suffers from social deprivation, particularly in Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Hamilton and McKechnie is determined that these students should not be disadvantaged when it comes to their education.

She says that 47% of SLC’s learners come from SIMD10/20 (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) postcode areas and have a 75% achievement rate. “We’re the highest performing college in Scotland for overall student achievement, best in class for students from deprived backgrounds and from minority ethnic backgrounds with 5% of our learners from minority ethnic backgrounds compared to 0.1% in the local South Lanarkshire population – and are the second top performing college in Scotland for students who are care-experienced or who have a disability.”

The Scottish Government’s Framework for Fair Access was designed for schools, colleges, universities and the third sector and McKechnie says there is still  a lot of work to be done in terms of students from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that they have fair access to tertiary education.

 “The evidence demonstrates that students from more deprived backgrounds have reduced career prospects, possibly because they don’t have the same network of connections or confidence compared with those from a middle class background,” she says.    

“So we’re working on these skills that are helpful in terms of future success, building students’ confidence and networking abilities and opening up all the available opportunities.”

SLC has, she says, a robust Access and Inclusion Strategy supported by an Annual Action Plan, which ensures equity of access to college courses for all applicants and provides access to a number of technologies to support learning, including Claroread, BrowseAloud, eye gaze equipment and induction loops. 

For students with barriers to attainment the college offers extended learning support, including an in-house interpreter and an electronic note-taker for those who use British Sign Language.

With a wide range of quality learning opportunities for more than 5000 learners, SLC delivers some 600 modern apprenticeships every year, working in partnership with 1500 employers in local industry to secure work placements for its students (33% of its full-time courses have work placements as an integral part of the programme) while a growing number of local employers provide guaranteed interviews for students before the end of their course.

And while recognition for the college’s efforts has come in the form of multiple awards, including it being the only college in the UK to be awarded the Investors in People Platinum award twice in succession, the absolute focus, says McKechnie, is on the success of its students.

“We work hard to provide all our students with the very best learning experience in an atmosphere of respect, support and wellbeing. It’s our ambition to be absolutely inclusive and diverse. We want all our learners to succeed in their studies and we want to see them all progress in their chosen career.”

This article appears as part of The Herald's The Future Of Education campaign, in association with South Lanarkshire College.

If you would like to become a partner in our Future of Education Series, contact Stephen McDevitt, Head of Digital and Branded Content campaign@heraldandtimes.co.uk