Yesterday, we celebrated six years of the Edinburgh and Lothians Colleges Group (ELCG) at a gala dinner in Edinburgh, with Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop as our keynote speaker. The group was formed in recognition of our belief that we could best serve our region by working together, and jointly seeking to improve the opportunities that we offer, individually and collectively, to our communities.
All six of the Edinburgh and Lothians colleges are represented in the group - that's Newbattle Abbey, West Lothian, Jewel and Esk, Oatridge, Stevenson and Edinburgh's Telford colleges. At the heart of our unified approach are the regular meetings of the six college principals to share matters of common importance, discuss possible joint developments and ensure that we are not competing unnecessarily.
It may seem obvious that, when there are six colleges serving a population of 800,000 in Edinburgh, East Lothian, Midlothian and West Lothian, our provision should be carefully considered to ensure that, between us, we are meeting all of our learners' needs as well as responding to the rapidly changing demands of the local economy. However, the demands of running a college on a day-to-day basis being what they are, it is often all too easy for college bosses to focus purely on getting the provision of their own college right, regardless of what is being offered by their neighbours.
We were guilty of this in Edinburgh and the Lothians, so we got together to develop a more coherent approach. An early task was to map our curriculum in order to consider useful adjustments, not only to fill any "black holes" but also to avoid the unnecessary overlapping of provision. We have been able to share labour market information and economic indicators, so we can offer the right education and training opportunities to meet local demands.
Perceptions of Scotland's colleges have changed a great deal since the ELCG was first formed. Six years ago, there was much ignorance of our role - not just among the general public but also among many of our key stakeholders. In some ways, that was understandable: people knew colleges were no longer the old "tech", but they weren't quite sure what they had become instead. So one of our first undertakings was a joint marketing campaign, including a commercial made by our students for TV, to highlight the benefits of engaging with a college, which ran ahead of our own campaigns.
We also aspired jointly to build relationships with key regional stakeholders. For example, one of our other major projects was on employability and enterprise, and we were partnered by the chamber of commerce and the STUC locally.
Reflecting on the last six years, I think the major factor in the success of our collaboration is that each of us wants the other colleges to do well. As is well known, we had a large amount of funding for capital projects. But the green-eyed monster did not raise its ugly head, for we're all pleased when such an opportunity comes for one of our colleges.
Why? Well, many of our learners have no choice as to which college they attend: they have to go to their nearest or most accessible. And why should they not have the best, wherever they live in Edinburgh and the Lothians?
Ray Harris is principal of Edinburgh's Telford College.