Powerhouse of ambition

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Reid Kerr College in Paisley will celebrate its 60th birthday in two years'

time but, as The TESS reveals over the next three pages, it has plenty to celebrate now, writes Neil Munro

It was a telling comment. Donald Morrison, principal of Reid Kerr College at incorporation, was in a minibus leaving a reception at Edinburgh Castle. His companions were Glasgow principals whose colleges had not fared well when they parted company with Strathclyde Region.

Taking a look around, Mr Morrison suddenly called out: "Stop driver, I am on the wrong bus. This is the one with the deficits."

Alas for his college, and a number of others, the early fruits of incorporation were not sweet. Reid Kerr had its share of disputes, strikes and financial crises as it struggled to cope with the competitive funding mechanism put in place to allow colleges to take wing.

At one point in 1998, the college's then management was presiding over an accumulated deficit of pound;878,000 and had its government grant cut by pound;492,000. In desperation, it announced a redundancy programme which would have cut its staff by a tenth. (It later scaled down the cuts from 46 posts to 15.) Reid Kerr was eventually put into intensive financial care with the help of a corporate recovery plan from the Scottish Office to cut costs and improve efficiency.

To cap its unhappy start, the college then received a blistering report from the inspectorate which concluded that, on six counts of performance, the management was only "fair".

What a difference a few years make. The 2003 inspectorate report gave the college's leadership the ultimate accolade of "very good". In fact, almost everything about the college was judged to be very good. The few that were not, were "good".

Joe Mooney, the principal since 1999, was praised by the inspectors for "strong, focused, very effective leadership built on a very clear, positive vision of the college's future". He and his staff had made "commendable progress in addressing the major challenges the college had faced at the time of his appointment".

On virtually every count of what matters in further education - from switching disaffected teenagers on to learning, to training Libyan oil workers - Reid Kerr is among the leaders in its field. It has become an award-winning powerhouse, typified symbolically by the almost complete renovation of its estate.

The attitude is encapsulated by Mr Mooney: "As well as encouraging ambition, we help people to achieve their ambition."

Reid Kerr is now a major player, both educationally and economically, in the Renfrewshire area. And it does not do this by relying just on the public purse. Of its pound;21 million turnover, only pound;14 million comes from the Scottish Funding Council. It estimates that pound;1.8 million goes into the Paisley area economy from the spending of its 300 overseas students. As an employer, it has 800 staff delivering 700 courses.

By any standards, all this makes the college a significant business.

The college was judged to be the International Centre of the Year in last year's Scottish Qualifications Authority awards, following the previous year's accolade as the SQA's top exam centre in further education. The global recognition was for the SQA centre regarded as having done the most to demonstrate "innovation, effectiveness and determination in forging international links".

As well as the students who come to Paisley from other countries, the college has outposts in Uganda, Rwanda, Libya and India. It also runs training programmes for companies overseas.

Mr Mooney believes the marketplace for further education is changing and the sector needs to take advantage of global opportunities to give them a competitive edge. The college generated pound;3 million in international business in 2004, which was 15 per cent of its total income. This would have benefits for the colleges' own communities, he said. "Colleges must know what the best is and how to improve on it," Mr Mooney says.

The "best" is well represented by its students and staff. Most recently, Bianca Gray, an SVQ level 2 hairdressing student, was crowned the Hairdressing Council's UK student of the year. The college has seen two of its students, Claire Adam and James McLaughlin, who were studying for an HND in dance, reach the final of the BBC's Strictly Dance Fever contest.

And Peter Mackie-Burns, a drama lecturer, won an award at the Berlin International Film Festival for the best entry in the short film competition last year.

These triumphs are assiduously promoted, so it is no surprise to find that Reid Kerr won no less than four American marketing awards, which are open to colleges on the east coast of the USA, Canada, Bermuda and the UK.

The college likes to think of itself as serving not only the needs of the Renfrewshire area, but also lifting its sights to other parts of the globe to discover best practice in learning and teaching elsewhere. It is not shy about bringing gurus in to keep staff and management expertise up-to-date.

Geoff Petty, a teacher training expert, and Curtis Bonk, an American specialist on learning and techology, visited recently.

The college's links with other agencies are extensive, another sign of its willingness to raise its sights. These include schools in the area, neighbouring local authorities, universities and St Mirren FC.

The New Directions project, in which Reid Kerr is involved with Renfrewshire Council to tackle disaffection among 15-year-olds, is one initiative (TESS February 13, 2004). Started in 2001, it was quick to give school pupils an alternative curriculum.

The project showed that the college was making a difference: only four of the 114 teenagers who took part failed to complete their final year of compulsory schooling at a base in the college.

The changed attitudes among the students represented a "remarkable and extraordinary transformation", says Jim Doherty, a Strathclyde University researcher who helped to evaluate the project.

The difference Reid Kerr is now making is not lost on its students: 85 per cent of the 20,000 who attend each year are attracted by word of mouth.

"That's quite a change from the 20 per cent of a few years ago," Mr Mooney says gratifyingly.

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