By offering equipment, free meals and ongoing support, South Lanarkshire College’s proactive approach in confronting hardship caused by Covid-19 has helped the health and wellbeing of all students, reveals Ann Wallace

HELPING students achieve their ambitions in a world turned upside down by a pandemic has been a significant challenge for schools, colleges and universities across Scotland.

What has been crucial, says South Lanarkshire College Principal Aileen McKechnie, is never losing sight of the bigger picture.“Our ambition has always been to be absolutely inclusive, diverse and equal – these values underpin the ethos of the college and are central to the work we do to support not just our students, but our staff and the wider community,” she explains.

“We know the importance of ensuring all our students are able to succeed in their studies and in their careers and we want to create the best possible learning environment to help all our learners achieve their ambitions.”

She pauses. “Covid has absolutely upturned that, it has had an impact on every aspect of what we do across the college, and I think most of us find it astonishing that we are still in this position, a full 12 months later,” she adds. 

“There has been an enormous shift – it has been life-changing. But we have acted quickly, putting in place a range of support measures for students and staff, keeping our doors open to remain accessible and visible, and playing our part in helping the wider community. We are more than just an education provider.”

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South Lanarkshire College Principal Aileen McKechnie

Like many colleges across the country, South Lanarkshire’s response as the pandemic took hold was swift. Keenly aware of the digital poverty facing many students, the team delivered equipment such as laptops, dongles and wifi devices to those who needed it, and provided extra training to staff and students to support remote teaching and learning.

So far, more than 500 laptops have been distributed to the student community. The college also invested heavily in learning and teaching e-resources to help support remote learning, before quickly turning its attention to mental health and wellbeing, and wider issues of poverty.

“Many of our students work part-time, in shops, bars or restaurants, for example, and during lockdown all of those jobs were taken away from them,” says Ms McKechnie.

“We have an absolute focus on reducing student poverty. I want to remove these barriers to learning. We made available Discretionary Hardship funding, to encourage students who are facing significant hardship to apply for financial help, and we offer an urgent financial crisis support service for those who are struggling and who may have no access to money for food or fuel to heat their homes.”

The college runs subsidised food provision to support healthy eating in its canteen and has recently announced an extension to its Free Soup & Sandwich initiative which, in partnership with the Student Association, provides a free lunch for those on campus for critical learning.

Keeping its doors open throughout the pandemic has been a key commitment for South Lanarkshire College.

“It was important that people could access immediate financial and wellbeing support – for some, for a variety of reasons, the home environment is simply not safe or conducive to remote working,” says Ms McKechnie.

Despite the challenges, student engagement at the college has been high, with attendance levels remaining in the high 70s and low 80s, percentage-wise, she adds. “We are delighted with the levels of engagement and motivation we have seen over the last 12 months – both online and on campus, a real testament to the commitment and drive of all our students and staff,” says Ms McKechnie.

“We have increased our support for mental health and wellbeing, including access to 24/7 virtual support, one-to-one support and counselling, free weekly mindfulness and yoga classes, online resilience workshops, and our Student Association has worked exceptionally hard to run social activities for all students. Covid has changed people, it has made them rethink the support they really need.

"Two years ago, I would not have been confident that mindfulness sessions would have been as well received as they have been - across all faculties and all students, we have been really encouraged by the levels of engagement.”

Proud of its role as a ‘civic anchor’ in the community, South Lanarkshire College has worked closely with a range of local organisations, including Citizens Advice Scotland, the Trussell Trust and local foodbank, Loaves and Fishes.

“In those first few days, when it became apparent we would have to close along with the rest of the country, we packaged up all of our health and beauty supplies and gave them out to social care providers, and any PPE we had we sent to the hospital,” says Ms McKechnie.

“It was about asking what we could do, what we had that we could share, and how we could help as everyone tried to understand what was happening.”

South Lanarkshire was the first college in Scotland to provide its student and staff community with free access to sanitary products and now does this remotely in partnership with Hey Girls. By offering a range of options, it meant students could order online and have products delivered straight to their home address.     
Ms McKechnie is aware of the challenges ahead as lockdown comes to an end and restrictions eventually ease.

“Like all colleges, we also recognise we have a significant part to play in the wider social and economic recovery as we emerge from Covid,” she adds. “Above all, we want to do what we can to support our learners and our colleagues after what has been a very hard year for them.”

www.slc.ac.uk

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Students’ dreams  achieved despite Covid-19 nightmare

JUGGLING study, work and family life is demanding at the best of times, but during a pandemic, the challenges can seem insurmountable.

Not so for Eleanor Ampleford, who put her dreams of becoming a nurse into motion, joined the NHS as a healthcare assistant to get work experience and helped out at vaccination centres – all despite a lengthy period recovering from Covid.

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“It has been a really tough year,” says Eleanor, 36, from East Kilbride. 
“But I love my course and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved – I did so well this year that I can start in second year at university in the autumn, which is amazing.”

Eleanor is one of South Lanarkshire College’s #SLCsuperheroes, with a starring role on the institution’s social media pages. Principal Aileen McKechnie says: “We are very proud of all our staff and students. They have worked incredibly hard during the pandemic, often during very difficult circumstances.

“The idea behind #SLCsuperheroes is to celebrate them, to tell the great stories of success and achievement that have happened this year, despite everything. There have been many positive experiences in the past 12 months and it would be a shame to forget that.”

Eleanor signed up to the college’s Healthcare Practice because nursing has been a long-held dream. “It runs in the family – my gran was a ward sister, my aunt was a nurse – I did want to do it when I was younger but I took a different path and studied travel and tourism.”

For work experience, Eleanor became a Healthcare Support Assistant for the NHS but while covering a shift on a Covid ward, she contracted the virus.

“It was awful – I spent two weeks in bed, in pain, isolated from my husband and children – it was a very lonely time,” she explains.

“I still feel the effects of it. But after I recovered I went back to the frontline and covered shifts at a local vaccination centre.

“Now I’m concentrating on my studies to complete my course, which has been fantastic. My dream is to have a career that’s life-long, rewarding and challenging. Nurses deal with life, death and everything in between and I really want to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Fellow #SLCsuperhero Robyn Downie has been supporting her studies at South Lanarkshire College by helping local vulnerable older people.

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“Working at Careline Home Support has been a great experience for me,” says the 23-year-old from East Kilbride.

“I help older people in their own homes, making dinner, helping with personal hygiene and so on, and it’s really rewarding. This is such a difficult time for people who are on their own, with family unable to visit, so I’m happy to help.”
Robyn is hoping to study mental health nursing at university after completing her HNC in Social Services.

“The lecturers at South Lanarkshire College are brilliant and the course has been great, even though it’s been very different doing it online,” she adds. “It’s been the best step for me, it will definitely help me get where I want to be.”

  • To find out more about #SLCsuperheroes and about opportunities available at South Lanarkshire College in 2021 visit www.slc.ac.uk

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