Joint campus to be centre of excellence

College and troubled school will collaborate to raise aspirations

The ink was barely dry on the Wood Commission's report on improving vocational learning when, last week, the cabinet at North Ayrshire Council approved the development of a cutting-edge new campus to be shared by one of its secondary schools and Ayrshire College.

A Skills Centre of Excellence, operated by the college, will be set up on the site of Irvine Royal Academy to help students to move more smoothly through their secondary and further education and into higher learning and high-level apprenticeships.

Breaking down barriers between educational sectors, the pioneering project anticipates the kind of initiatives that the Wood report envisages.

The plans at Irvine Royal come only months after a damning inspection report by Education Scotland found the school to be "weak" on all indicators. Not only were students performing below the national average of schools in similar communities but there were also "important weaknesses in the quality of the curriculum across the school".

The most recent available statistics from North Ayrshire Council show that both staying-on rates and exam passes are below council and national averages, with only half of students staying on to the sixth year and just 12 per cent achieving five Higher passes by the end of that year. Council chief executive Elma Murray said the authority was determined "to say we are changing this and we mean business".

It is hoped that the new centre, funded by the college and the council and staffed initially with around a dozen college employees, will encourage young people to progress more successfully into higher levels of education.

After an extensive refurbishment programme, the college will offer sport, fitness and social care courses on site from this September. Next year, the offer will be extended to five curricular areas, chosen on the basis of economic needs identified in the region. Courses will be open to all students, who will be able to choose them in the same way as existing school subjects.

Ayrshire College principal Heather Dunk stressed that the project was firmly in line with the Wood Commission's recommendations. The first of these was for vocational pathways to begin in the senior phase and "that is exactly what we are doing", she said.

There would also be significant industry involvement - another focus of the Wood report, she added.

"I think this is quite pioneering. We are breaking down barriers that have been in place for a long time between sectors and are showing how we can work together in a seamless way," Ms Dunk explained.

The joint campus was about "raising the aspirations of young people", she continued, in what she described as "an area of Ayrshire that really needs as much support as it can get". She added that being able to mix with college students would inspire younger students and provide them with role models.

The idea for the centre was born out of discussions about relocating Ayrshire College's sports provision, a subject area in which it had supported the school for a number of years. "College and council staff worked out that they could do something that is much better than just sport and leisure, and turn it into a centre for excellence," Ms Murray said.

College and school staff will work together closely, moving towards joint curriculum planning in order to ensure that subjects and employability courses are well aligned.

Angela Constance, the Scottish government's training, youth and women's employment minister, commented: "Initiatives such as those in North Ayrshire should be commended for their forward-thinking in ways to help more young people towards work."

She added that the government would "work closely with our partners, particularly those in local government" on bringing the Wood Commission's recommendations to fruition.

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