Guest post – Dame Ruth Silver gives a straight A in access excellence to Ayrshire College

ruthsilverAs Chair to the Commission on Widening Access I want to better support the ambitions of Scotland’s talented young people regardless of their background to ensure that they can fully pursue their post school educational journeys and pathways. For this reason, I am undertaking a roadshow and a series of visits. As a former Principal myself of Lewisham College, a large bustling and diverse college in London, I was insistent that my journey to understand access excellence in Scotland must include colleges.

That was what brought me to Ayrshire College and what a lovely welcome and day out it turned out to be. After being met in person I was shown the new college build which will be a straight A in shape it seems! Upon arrival at the college we were greeted in person by the Principal and the Chair and treated to a fabulous lunch and pudding courtesy of the staff and students from the catering department. Simply delicious.

The Principal and Chair then provided an overview of the access work of the college but mostly what came through was a pride in its staff and its students, for this reason they asked me to listen to the stories of the students and the staff themselves as they felt they could best tell the story of what access in Ayrshire College was about.

What followed was a session with past and current students to understand their journeys, their barriers, how they overcome them and what advice they would give to others to help them achieve their ambitions. The honest stories told by the students who had lived the experience reminded me of the need for choice and the need for flexibility in our systems if the talent of our young people is to be fully released and recognised. There is no one size fits all model or one right or best route but what there must be is flexibility and positive experiences along a progressive pathway.

My discussion with the students and staff also highlighted that sometimes this good practice is already in place and is working well, as is the case for one student on the SFC’s Associate Student scheme with the college and the University of Strathclyde whereby he is both a college and a university engineering student and, it seems, getting the most out of both those systems. But in other cases this pathway is not as smooth or flexible, such as the student who entered advanced study in a Glasgow university with little support or connection to the cohorts progressing from year 1 or 2. Thankfully in the latter case the college was on hand to help find an alternative route to a university degree through the OU at the college.

I was then invited to visit The Hive and discovered another level of access and inclusion. I also noted that one of the students I had met earlier started her journey and belief in herself through the great work of the staff from The Hive. This element of access is absolutely crucial and it was plain to see that this element of the college changes lives and increases the chances of progressive positive pathways. I wondered what would happen to the lovely lively students from The Hive and what pathways they would enter next with the great support of the professionals around them.

With my head filled with thoughts and stories of pathways, I was invited to try even more delicious treats from the catering department before meeting some impressive and ambitious school students from the local area who will in time become our future teachers, dentists and doctors. Their stories differed from that of the college students and outlined how important it is to have a support network around you when considering university. It was clear to me that the application process itself, when told through the eyes of the first in family pupils, is a daunting procedure. Not only that, but it requires an element of forward planning and understanding of the system, to ensure you have right grades in the right areas at the right time. This simply must change and future students must receive better advice and support. It is unfair for those in the know to have a competitive advantage over those who do not. Furthermore, it is not the best means of identifying talent.

All of that said, the perseverance and determination of the young people I met in Ayrshire to pursue their dreams and chosen careers was remarkable, and I am not sure if anything will ever really stand in their way. I wish them all the best in their future careers and would like to thank them, the Principal, Chair and staff (and of course the wonderful catering department) for their time. I have a lot to think about as I lead the Commission on Widening Access towards its final report but, like the students, I and my fellow Commissioners have an impressive level of perseverance and determination.

Thank you Ayrshire College, like your new build I am giving you a straight A in access excellence.

You can get involved in the work of the Commission on Widening Access at!join-the-discussion/c127h or by following @CoWA2015 on Twitter.


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