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Burning ambitions are being realised in fire stations across Aberdeenshire

When your college class is held in a fire station, there is always the chance of the occasional distraction when the firefighters are called out.

Lecturer Koulla Elvin says it does sometimes happen during her digital photography classes at Ellon Fire Station in Aberdeenshire. "There's always a bit of a buzz, quite an excitement - especially if the guys get a shout. In Ellon, when the firemen come in, you see them all changing - so the girls love it," she says, laughing.

Koulla, 33, is a lecturer in IT and digital photography and a popular teacher on courses at Ellon and Inverurie fire stations - an award-winning collaboration between Aberdeen College and Grampian Fire and Rescue Service.

This is the fourth photography course she has run at Ellon Fire Station and most of the students have taken all four courses. They began as "the terrified", then moved from "quietly confident" to become "creative" and now location photographers.

Today, they're giving constructive criticism to each other on shots taken at a nearby castle. They are a mix of ages and backgrounds and have been studying photography for over a year together and there's a light-hearted mood. Their work is impressive and with the airbrushing techniques they've learnt in Photoshop, it's also making them popular.

"I've taken out a few wrinkles and things, so my mother-in-law was well impressed," says occupational therapist Gail Henry. "I work three days a week and I have three children, so this is my release."

Gail car-shares with two other mums on the 30-mile round trip from Fyvie every week: "If we had to go to Aberdeen, we probably wouldn't have done the course," says her friend Diane Ironside, who taught at Whitehills School before her children were born.

Their friend, Hazel Irvine, worked in a photography business before she had children and wants to return to work as a portrait photographer. "I did a photography HNC 10 years ago and I am updating and getting back into it by doing digital courses."

Retired human resources manager Tom Douglas thinks this location is great. "These places lie unused and we pay for that, so it's good that the public benefits from the whole thing. I think it could be applied elsewhere quite easily."

Aberdeen College runs courses at seven fire stations across the north east in partnership with Grampian Fire and Rescue Service. This pioneering venture has just scooped The Herald Society collaboration award and been shortlisted in the Association of Colleges Beacon Awards, which will be announced later this month.

The initiative came about after a chance conversation between the college's head of community and lifelong learning, Joan Thorne, and Peter Murray, Grampian's assistant chief fire officer. Mr Murray had been seconded to Aberdeen College through Leaders UK, a national learning programme for public and private sector senior management. A former Aberdeenshire area commander, he was aware that 23 retained fire stations in the region were unoccupied 90 per cent of the time.

"They are occupied only one evening a week or when the fire appliance is called out. The firefighters are on pagers and respond to the station if alerted or mobilised to the call. But every station has a lecture room, which we use once a week for our staff training. I was really conscious that resource could be used more effectively," says Mr Murray.

Since the programme was set up over a year ago, 469 people have studied at stations in Dyce, Ellon, Inverurie, Peterhead and Banchory, and stations at Huntly and Insch launched new courses this year.

Among the 32 courses offered are programmes in computing, digital photography, beginners' Spanish and French, child development, and accident and emergency procedures. Even the firefighters got into the spirit of things with bespoke IT courses, which were delivered by the college to Grampian Fire and Rescue Service staff.

"We believe it is a model that can be replicated throughout the UK, because there are hundreds of retained stations up and down the country," says Mr Murray.

Thirty-four of the 40 fire stations in Grampian are retained stations - offering further potential to extend the partnership working with Aberdeen and other colleges in the area.

Joan Thorne is delighted with the success of the award-winning venture, which has extended college courses to more remote rural communities and people made redundant during the downturn. At some locations, internet access and laptops have been provided.

"We met the fire service staff in each station to sell the idea to them and the classes started in September last year," she says. "We now have five stations running; another two have been added and we are currently looking at an eighth station."

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