Closing the attainment gap will be impossible without more consideration of adult learning, according to the new principal of Newbattle Abbey College.
Speaking on her first day as principal, Marian Docherty, who was previously depute principal at the college for nearly nine years, says that while the government’s focus on raising attainment in schools is “right”, the policy’s full potential can never be realised without also addressing the wider lack of opportunities for families.
The former secondary school headteacher says: “The more you work with young people in schools, the more apparent it is that the learning opportunities for their families are critical. You are never going to raise attainment in high schools, and in school generally, unless you also tackle adult education issues. It is so obvious, but people still don’t seem to grasp that.”
Docherty adds: “People are focusing too much on the very genuine issue of raising attainment across Scotland within schools [so] maybe supporting families is too daunting, but it is a clear omission.”
Getting parents to engage can be a difficult ask, in particular families with social, emotional or educational challenges, whose children are not attaining in school, she says. “But if it is done in a very positive way, by trained staff who are used to working in the community, that transition can be very powerful,” continues Docherty.
“In terms of working with adults, if there are planned progression routes for adults that lead from part-time informal programmes, maybe linked to nurseries, to part-time learning and then to full-time learning, more people will progress. If you say ‘it’s a full-time programme, or it’s nothing’, the gap gets wider.”
Improving adult education would have a positive knock-on effect on school-aged learners within the family, she says: “The research and my experience suggest that. Not just in terms of the role-model status, but if you are exposing yourself to educational opportunities, you are more inclined to engage with your children.”
Any such initiative, she stresses, would need not only funding, but also staff expertise – ideally from those who have worked across more than one education sector – and planned learner pathways.
The idea that education staff should gain experience in more than one part of the system is important to the former English and Italian teacher, who also worked as an inspector of post-16 institutions and as national development officer for the Scottish Open Learning Consortium. “I genuinely believe it is very important for people to work across sectors,” she says. “We see far too many people who lodge in one sector, they understand that one very well, but they don’t understand the agenda in other sectors.”
Being a principal in an organisation she knows so well is “a nice feeling”, says Docherty. “It is a nice place to be, and a place based on sound principles that haven’t changed in the past 80 years. That makes the experience very positive. But if it wasn’t a challenge, it would be very boring.”
Newbattle Abbey College is different to other FE institutions, not just because of its architecture and history. The college has about 120 full-time and between 50 and 60 part-time students. And although it has greatly expanded its provision from just one access to higher education course about 10 years ago to a range of courses now – from an HNC in social sciences, to rural skills, preparation for FE, and Gaelic and Celtic-studies courses – the breadth of offer is still more limited than elsewhere.
Newbattle is also Scotland’s national adult-education college. And although the increase in courses has led to a diversification of the student cohort, says Docherty, “most of our learners are still significantly older than at other colleges.”
The college has between 80 and 90 residential places, mostly occupied by arts and social science students. It was spared the significant structural changes experienced by much of the sector in recent years, which saw colleges merge and organised by region.
“We have retained our independent status as a national institution that works in partnership with other colleges but stands alone. So one can emphasise and sympathise with other colleges, but we are quite happy that the [Scottish Funding Council] has seen fit to leave us standing alone,” says Docherty.
The college has, however, increased its level of partnership work with other colleges, including Edinburgh College and other colleges offering Gaelic and Celtic studies.
Leaving Newbattle Abbey standing alone despite its size could be justified “for several reasons, first of all because of its national status”, she says. While other colleges operate in their specific area, she explains, Newbattle works across the country.
“In terms of the specific subjects we offer, very few colleges offer those. And this college – with its rich tradition – exemplifies the importance of adult education. I’m not saying other colleges are not interested in it, but that has not been a priority for other colleges.”
In its national role, the college has now run five consecutive national conferences on adult learning. It also runs the Adult Achievement Awards, which were launched in 2015 and have seen the participation of about 400 students. The scheme has completed its two-year pilot phase, and the college hopes to expand the awards to the rest of Scotland, the UK and Europe. “We are planning significant expansion,” says Docherty.
The awards are not the only growth area for the college – it is also exploring the development of a second HNC in heritage, tourism and events, exploiting the distinctive nature of Newbattle, and is also in the process of developing what it believes to be Scotland’s first forest leadership awards. “Newbattle will be the national accreditation centre for these awards,” Docherty says, proudly. “The demand for that is already very significant.”
The biggest challenge, according to the new principal, will be maintaining and developing the college’s national role and, at the same time, responding to the current regional outcome agreements and working with people locally. “Finance is obviously an issue for every college,” she adds.
However, Docherty believes that “without an institution that is actively promoting adult education, there would be a significant gap” – and she feels reassured that this fact is being recognised in Scotland.