Running with the Baton

27th February 2009 at 00:00
An award-winning project is helping to ease the transition to college for vulnerable learners

John Davidson is a former heroin addict who has set his heart and mind on becoming a community education worker. He believes that, through his life experiences, he has a lot to offer in this field.

A full-time student at Jewel and Esk College, doing the Access course in humanities for Edinburgh University, which he hopes to attend from this September, Mr Davidson has come a long way in the past few years. He puts his success down to the college's award-winning Baton Project, which supports vulnerable learners who find the transition to college difficult and often drop out or underachieve.

"I don't think I'd be at college without the Baton Project," he says. "The help and enthusiasm of the staff boosted my self-confidence from the start. They try to get the best out of you - and it works."

Launched in 2007, Baton won a 2008 award for customer service at Scotland's Colleges annual awards ceremony. The project focuses on voluntary referrals from partner agencies like Apex, Women Onto Work and Progress Through Learning Midlothian, to provide a smooth and secure transition into the college learning environment, the referred learners being the "batons".

Through the project, Jewel and Esk's community development officer, Alex Galloway, goes out to the partner agencies in the area to hold sessions on valuing learning, on learning styles, and the boundaries and barriers to further education.

"I speak to our clients - prospective students - in small groups and one-to-one. I provide frontline guidance, assistance with course content and support with paperwork and meeting tutors for the first time," says Mr Galloway. "It's tailored to the individual student and is about finding the right course at the right level and the right time."

Mr Galloway is "a trusted face" for the students - mostly vulnerable learners - and through building a strong relationship with them, he is able to pass the "baton" student on to internal college support systems.

Mr Davidson is a case in point. "I was interested in college but I felt out of my depth when I tried to go into FE on my own. I failed because there was no one to turn to and I had to drop out. But then I met Alex through Apex," he says. "He put me in touch with the right tutors and the right course for me. He was somebody I could confide in until I was confident enough to deal with Student Services on my own."

The right course for Mr Davidson was the college's Entry to FE course (four days a week for six months), where a new-found interest in psychology and sociology inspired him to want to go into community education. "The main thing was confidence. I had very low self-esteem and it was here that Baton kicked in to give me that self-belief," he says. "Even at the height of my addiction I knew I was better than that, that I had a brain I could use, but I had no idea how to bridge the huge gap.

"That came through Apex, through meeting Alex and being supported to pass the first course so I can now do the Access course."

Although Mr Davidson is a self-motivated and confident learner, he still meets regularly with Alex Galloway for a chat and has recently become involved with the Baton Project on a different level.

"I come to some of Alex's meetings with the new 'baton' students and I talk to them about the courses I know and what they involve. They see me as someone who's been in their position," he says. "I go over the work with them and help assure them that if I can do it, so can they."

Mr Davidson is a role model for these students, according to Mr Galloway: "I've a feeling that at some future date we will work together in a shared professional capacity."

Mr Galloway's confidence is low-key and assured; and it is perhaps not misplaced, given the success of the Baton Project to date.

Its equivalent client base before the project started in 2006-07 was 17 students, of whom only five completed their programmes. With the start of Baton the following year, 16 out of 20 enrolled students completed their courses, with two leaving for personal reasons (they remain in contact and hope to return at a future date), one leaving to go into full-time employment and the other leaving through pregnancy.

According to the project feedback, 53 per cent of students say they would not have started college without the additional support through Baton; and 64 per cent say they would not have stayed at college without the support. "Our success is down to the work with our partner agencies and with the college's student services, who work hand in glove with us," says Mr Galloway.

"But I also I take my hat off to these students in overcoming their problems. It really makes you feel you are doing something worthwhile."

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