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Joined-up thinking

Why John Wheatley College in Glasgow's east end was awarded Partnership of the Year

Why John Wheatley College in Glasgow's east end was awarded Partnership of the Year

The dim lighting in Ian Graham's office is a long way from the glitz and glitter of the recent SQA Awards, where John Wheatley College took Pride o' Worth, the top award for an institution.

"They dim themselves to save energy," the college principal explains, turning a knob that bathes the room in light. "This whole building's designed to be energy-efficient. We get almost 40 per cent from renewables, not far off the Scottish Government target for 10 years' time."

This kind of planning for a sustainable future is essential for a college in the heart of Glasgow's east end, he says. "The caricature that it's a community of relatively un-educated, unskilled people left behind when industry moved away has glimmers of reality.

"Participation in further education in the east end is 18 per cent above the national norm. But in higher education it's virtually non-existent. That's a massive gap. So we have this continual argument with the funding council who say our participation rates are above the norm. They're a further and higher education funding council, so they should be taking account of both. But they're not noted for joined-up thinking."

Two courses created in the last few years exemplify the kind of creative, joined-up thinking the community needs - and SQA recognised in naming John Wheatley the Partnership of the Year. "Everyone here is very good at adding value and finding learning opportunities in any regeneration activity," says Mr Graham.

"Take our HNC in Health Care. There's currently pressure on single parents to become economically active when their children get older. But they're likely to get jobs that are pretty basic. On the other hand, East Glasgow community health and care partnership - we learned when we talked to them - has a need for professionally-trained health care assistants.

"So in partnership we devised a course that provides work placements and guarantees students a job on successful completion. They get paid for their work while they're on the course, so they come through debt- free."

The other new course specifically mentioned by SQA is the HNC in working with communities, combined with the PDA (professional development award) in housing law for advisers. Identifying a need by talking to local people was again the starting point, says Gary Harkins, senior lecturer in community development.

"Traditionally the core business of a housing association was collecting rents and doing repairs. But they now have a wider role to become engaged with the local community. Most of their people don't have any experience of that. They come from a bricks and mortar background.

"So John McMorrow, director of Easthall Park Housing Co-operative, and I got together and looked at ways of providing community development input to the housing sector. We came up with this idea of a course that combined housing with community development, and got funding from the Scottish Government to run it."

Students on the course spend three days a week studying community development and housing theory and two days on placement with one of 12 east-end housing organisations. "They get a training allowance of pound;200 a week, which takes them out of the benefits trap, and they are job-ready by the end of it - or able to enter a degree course at Glasgow or Strathclyde University, which two of them did last year.

Student outcomes are a good measure of the success of the course, but a better one, perhaps, is that the community need that first gave rise to it is beginning to be met.

"One of our students was out on placement in a housing organisation that had three blocks of flats and an uneasy relationship with tenants. Our student built so many bridges between the two groups that they are now working together much more harmoniously - and the housing organisation was very keen to take another student to carry on the good work this year."

It was gratifying, at the end-of-course celebration, to hear student stories about the contributions they'd made in the community, says associate principal Anne Lockyer - although informal feedback like that is often not recorded. "But HMIE in its recent review was very interested in the programme, and was able to get feedback from the housing organisations that the partnership was highly beneficial to them."

As with most courses at John Wheatley College, school qualifications are not an entry requirement. "Most colleges would ask for two Highers for this kind of course," says Mr Harkins. "Instead, we give them a case study to work on as part of the interview process. We're looking for good work experience and a community ethos."

But this open access, while a key feature of partnership with the local community, does need support mechanisms to make it sustainable, says Mrs Lockyer. "This is an ambitious programme and students with a background in community work might not have high levels of qualifications.

"The bar mustn't be so high that it excludes them. But to make open access work, you have to be serious about the support you provide - for learning, literacy, ICT skills. It's hugely individual and it can't rely only on initial assessment."

Concern that support needs might limit chances of acceptance can make applicants reluctant to disclose, says Mr Harkins. "After the first essay, we realised one student would need additional support. We've now put that in place and I've no regrets about offering her a place.

"It is a tough course but it's a very worthwhile one - for the students and the local community."

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