Retired vice-principal transformed her life and then the lives of others

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
Shirley Scott left school at 15 but ended up leading classes and telling students that degrees are `for the likes o' you'

A single mother with five children living in Methil, Fife, came into Adam Smith College. She was bored with watching daytime TV and wanted to learn something about computers. Eventually, she became a full-time student at the college and, five years later, completed a degree in learning difficulties.

"By transforming her life, we also had an impact on her five children, the mother now being a different kind of role model. By working with the individual, you change communities," says Shirley Scott, former vice- principal at Adam Smith, who retired in August after 30 years in further education.

Throughout those 30 years, it would be pretty safe to say that transforming lives was always at the heart of Mrs Scott's work.

"Aspiration must never be killed off. Our job is to instil confidence, to engage with students and to help them develop," she says.

Recently awarded an honorary fellowship by Abertay University, Mrs Scott believes one of her strengths is that she could always identify with her students.

She tells of one student, when confronted with the idea of taking a degree, saying: "But, Shirley, it's no' for the likes o' me." Her reply was: "Aye, but it is for the likes o' you".

Her certainty revealed something of her own background. One of six children brought up in the mining community of Buckhaven, Mrs Scott left school at the age of 15 to work as an office junior. A bright girl with a passion for learning, she took evening classes in English, shorthand and typing and later became the school secretary at Braehead Secondary in Buckhaven, where the headteacher was the educational visionary R.F. Mackenzie.

"Bob was absolutely inspirational, and immediately he began to shape my adult life. Eventually I became an uncertificated teacher at the school, because he convinced me that I could do what I always wanted to do - and that was to teach."

She then attended Kirkcaldy Technical College, where she took Highers, and was offered places at Edinburgh and Dundee universities. But with a growing family, this wasn't possible and instead she took an HND in communication studies at Fife College, becoming a part-time and eventually a full-time lecturer in life and social skills and personal development at Glenrothes College. She quickly rose through the ranks to senior lecturer and head of faculty, before becoming director of curriculum and associate principal, assistant principal and - most recently - vice-principal of Adam Smith, which came into being when Fife and Glenrothes colleges merged in 2005.

"My earlier experiences after leaving school and learning through further education made me a better teacher. I always had an emotional investment in my students, and I think there is no better `high' than a class going well," she says.

Mrs Scott was honoured by Abertay University for her work as an educator, a manager, a member of national strategy groups and as a leader and collaborator in taking forward the Abertay-Adam Smith partnership, which now gives degree-level provision to Fife students at a time and place dovetailed to their work and personal commitments and lifestyle.

"The Abertay-Adam Smith partnership now offers 15 locally-delivered degree courses, ranging from construction and web design to management and digital publishing, and some 1,500 Fife people have already achieved degrees. If that kind of provision had been available when I had to leave school, an early degree would have been within my grasp," she says.

Closer collaboration between colleges and universities, and between colleges and schools, is essentially part of the bright future that Mrs Scott sees for FE.

"Colleges are now part of the fabric of communities and that is as it should be. Over 8,500 school pupils each year are gaining some educational experience at Adam Smith, for example. And the Curriculum for Excellence focus on vocational education in the senior phase lends itself to joint delivery, where more and more pupils will be able to take advantage of the excellent resources colleges can offer," she says.

There is no doubt that Mrs Scott's commitment to further education grew from her own early experiences and continued to grow as she sought to help college provision become more flexible and accessible.

As the citation for her honorary fellowship reads: "As someone who had herself benefited from returning to education as a mature student, she recognised that engagement in education and commitment to lifelong learning changes lives and, in doing so, effects positive change in our communities. This has remained the driving force throughout her professional life."

But, as Mrs Scott is only too keen to attest, the fellowship not only honours herself, but also the memory and influence of R.F. Mackenzie.

"Bob made me determined to learn and to teach. I was inspired by his commitment. For him, learning was about getting the pupils involved and that was the approach I took into teaching. Some say he was ahead of his time. I would go further. I would say he was an innovator who started a new time for others.

"He brought excitement to education with a real-life focus on engaging with young people."

How, then, would Shirley Scott sum up her own educational philosophy? "Real learning happens when we encourage people to be curious and questioning in an atmosphere in which teachers and learners share respect and have fun. We have to recognise that we all have the capacity to learn and to teach."

R.F. Mackenzie could not have put it better himself.

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