Social inclusion goes beyond distance learning

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
ALTHOUGH Shetland may be distinctive, some local needs are all too common. "There is social exclusion picturesquely hidden away here rather than concentrated in one place," Shetland College's principal points out.

Indeed the gap between Scottish Executive funding and the college's pound;2.1 million budget is largely plugged by an essential pound;250,000 injection from the European Social Fund to combat disadvantage - hence the concern over the future of that source.

The college runs a number of courses targeted on inclusion, access and learning difficulties. Community development is also an increasing focus and it works with other agencies such as the local enterprise company, community education and the council's economic development department. "We are too small to do it all on our own," Gordon Dargie says.

"Local learning groups" are among the most innovative departures involving the college. The model is the "community house" in Firth and Mossbank, 25 miles north of Lerwick, which was commended in the "Skills for Scotland" strategy issued by the former Scottish Office in March.

As the Sullom Voe oil terminal began to run down, the 600 villagers got together to decide what their own needs were, found learning was one of them and put together funds to rent a surplus council house as their learning base.

The villagers buy in the services they need, including college courses, which Mr Dargie believes is a better approach than simply offering a catalogue of distance learning opportunities. "We have tried that and it hasn't really worked," he says.

The same approach is being followed on the island of Yell through the Yell Adult Learning Project, and an education, recreation and training project on the island of Whalsay which grew out of a local history study. The needs of the 1,000 people in Unst are likely to be next in the frame as they cope with the loss of RAF Saxa Vord and the drain of population that will surely follow.

At the other end of the spectrum, Shetland College provides "drop-in" facilities for local employers, particularly micro-businesses. It even provides extra capacity for local textile firms rushing to meet contract deadlines at peak times - an order for Japan was being completed on the day of my visit.

The logical conclusion comes on stream in 2001 when a "business incubation centre" is planned to open next to the main college site at Gremista. This is a collaborative effort involving Shell Expro, the local authority and the local enterprise company, providing capacity for seven new businesses to start up.

These developments suggest Shetland College at least does not intend to forget its vocational mission despite the high-profile glamour of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The UHI project has, however, brought Shetland in from the cold. Mr Dargie says the college could not afford to participate without video-conferencing facilities, which broadband technology will vastly improve.

High-tech links also allow the principal to take part in meetings with colleagues in other colleges - Mr Dargie reckons to spend 40 per cent of his week on UHI matters. Collaboration has also been made easier for the staff, reducing their isolation. Textile lecturers, for example, have more sophisticated contacts with counterparts at the College of Textiles in Galashiels.

Mr Dargie takes an optimistic view of the impact of UHI. "It doesn't mean young people will not continue to go away to college or university, but they don't need to go away for four years. They can take a course here up to diploma level, for example, and then move away.

"The all-or-nothing approach of the past has gone, and that more flexible model has huge potential benefits for us."

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