Time for colleges to have their moment in the sun

Ray Harris

I sat down to write this piece the day after the official opening of our new college, which has to go down as one of the best days of my career.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, who performed the necessary, is clearly committed to making Scottish education the best in the world and is now well aware of the role that Scotland's colleges have to play. And we at Edinburgh's Telford College believe that we have the physical presence to contribute to that commitment. We have a world-class building in a world-class development in a world-class city, so that's a good start towards achieving our vision: to become a world-class learning and teaching organisation.

After the formality of the ceremony, we had a lunch hosted by our friend Lesley Hinds, Edinburgh's Lord Provost, who is not only a local councillor but was a member of our board of management until last year. She was no ordinary member: it was Lesley who first suggested that the re-development of the gas works would happen and that Edinburgh's Telford College should be an early committer. In fact, we were the first.

Mention of our students brings a sense of pride for, throughout the day, they participated. They were on the reception desk and showed people to their seats, assisted in making the gifts for the main guests, produced and erected the plaque and sculpture unveiled to mark the event, and filmed the day. I could go on. What surprised many of our guests, including the First Minister, was that in some cases they were being assessed.

Reflecting on the last four years and what we have achieved is sometimes scary: buying land, selling land, designing an affordable building that pushes back the boundaries, seeking planning approval, negotiating a loan and, yes, having interesting but successful interactions with HM Customs and Excise over the treatment of VAT - to the benefit of Scottish education, of course.

But we were always guided by our learning strategy; indeed, it provided direction to ourselves and the architects - even at the concept design stage of the building. Trust me, we now have an environment where "blended learning" is possible.

There were other good days during the process - seeing the areas that we had designed for learning taking shape, staff working together on day one, seeing the hub (the social centre at the heart of the building) and our "learning streets" busy as the students returned, and so on.

And there were bad days - but let's not go there now. However, throughout the process, knowing what we were achieving and could achieve for our students kept us going and is now encapsulated in our mission: our staff change lives through learning.

As I said on the day, there can surely be no greater responsibility than changing lives. Now the life changes we work daily to achieve will be done here in our stunning new college.

However, challenges lie ahead, in particular through our contributions to the community and the economy. Ours has been a re-location project bringing three campuses together into one, but we have stayed within our community of North Edinburgh and Leith. Many new homes are being built alongside us on the Waterfront development, and we will be working tirelessly for the integration of the whole community. Mindful of this, we chose a site that we knew would eventually be at the heart of the enlarged community.

Colleges don't often realise that they are big businesses, and our early commitment to the Waterfront regeneration has been a catalyst for others.

We are a key player in the business community and need to work with various partners to maximise the opportunities and success of this magnificent development opportunity for North Edinburgh and Leith.

And what of our contribution to the economy? Not only are we proud that we equip our learners with the skills needed by Scotland, but also we are determined to maximise the number of individuals we serve by a strong commitment to part-time study, be it through literacy and numeracy or continuing professional development activities. We recognise that this is not the easiest path for us to tread, but we believe that it meets the Scottish Executive's agenda.

So, we've all moved in and it's great. And we deserved our moment in the sun. But, in many ways, it was on behalf of Scotland's colleges.

Incidentally, if you want to see what I've been waxing lyrical about, you know where I am.

Ray Harris is principal of Edinburgh's Telford College

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