Winning staff member shares his secrets to success

At the end of 2015, Curriculum Manager John McTaggart won the prestigious SQA Champion award at the SQA Star Awards ceremony in Edinburgh.  John shared his winning formula in a very candid sit-down interview.

John’s journey

John McTaggart

I’m now in my 17th year at Ayrshire College. I began on a part-time temporary basis, splitting my time between a few colleges. Back when I started here we were in the old sports building which had a gymnasium with one badminton court and changing rooms that could accommodate ten males and ten females. When I arrived there were just three classes running with around 45 students in total. Once the College expanded there was an opportunity to make my position permanent. I’m now based at the Townholm Campus with over 300 students.

I started my own student days with an NC at Clydebank College. I was 23 years old and didn’t have experience or qualifications. I left school with two standard grades and was living in a housing scheme in Glasgow where I had been unemployed for seven years. I’ve now got more degrees than I’ve got standard grades!

I genuinely believe that there’s someone you meet in your life that can make a real difference by showing an interest in you. I am fortunate to have met a few significant people that have influenced me from Ayrshire College but I’ll always be grateful to Jim Tait, the Head of Sport at Clydebank College, for giving me a chance. I’ll never forget that. Jim was caring and compassionate and was willing to give people a chance irrespective of where they came from, what age they were and what they had done in the past. It was never about what the person had done, but what they could do in the future. I believe this is essential in further education which for many is a second chance and, for others, maybe even their last chance to change their life for the better.

There was another lecturer, who wasn’t even a sports lecturer, Sheena Grey, who had a massive influence on me as a person. She wasn’t scared to put students in their place if they were ‘stepping out of line’, but she would always give credit where it was due and praise when deserved. She taught me the importance of discipline, manners and respect – something which I believe is vital in the education of everyone. Outwith family, we need people like this in our lives who can act as mentors by guiding you in the right direction and teaching you right from wrong. Role models are very important.

On his role as curriculum manager

Becoming a curriculum manager was the natural progression for me. My predecessor, Sandy, was here for 29 years and I was heavily involved in a lot of what he had organised. It’s not something I ever envisaged doing as I believed my strength is working with the students. The downside to my current position is that I don’t have a day-to-day involvement with students anymore but, on the plus side, I can have a bigger impact on all students now rather than the ones I’d have been directly teaching.


I’m quite proactive within the community,mso in this position I can make decisions quicker without having to go through the formal process of speaking to a lot of people.

There’s no typical working week for me. Things happen and change on a day-to-day basis. I feel like a hamster on a wheel – as soon as you stop it’s hard to start again, so I just don’t stop! I have a wife and three kids, three dogs and other voluntary commitments, but because I’m emotionally invested in my work, I make time. It can’t be a just job, it’s all-consuming, and every staff member here buys into that ethos of hard work.

A representative from Scottish Student Sport recently commented that we’re the most proactive college anywhere in Scotland by far – no one can touch us. We’re more proactive than lots of universities. Last year we were the first ever educational establishment to get five stars for volunteering in community work. We agree to requests straight away and then work out a way to do it.

We’re here for the community and we’re here for the students. We don’t say “this will be great for our students” and utilise a community group because it’ll solely benefit them. It’s mutually beneficial for everyone. The value of the initiatives we run is the experience and the benefit to the students and the community.

The student journey

It is genuinely all about playing a part, however little it is, in the student journey.


Some students come straight from school without a clue about what they want to do. We have the opportunity to mould them into successful young people. To have that influence and the opportunity to have a massive impact on people’s lives is the best part about working at a college.

I like to think I treat every single student the way I would want my son or daughters treated if they were at college. I genuinely mean that. If they step out of line we need to tighten the reins in and that’s important. If they’re excelling, it’s important to emphasise that as well.

We’ve had some excellent students move on to become PE teachers, coaches in the SFA, and managers in disability organisations, while some are in USA full-time. I was down at the Citadel today and the leisure attendant there is someone who left us with an NC qualification. For him, that’s a massive success. He was unemployed for four years and couldn’t get a job. He came to college for a year, where he picked up a reference, a track record of turning up on time and a history of conducting himself in the appropriate manner. That’s as big a success for him as someone getting a degree. I’m exceptionally proud of him, and everyone else that’s come through this college and moved onto greater things.

The last four appointees to East Ayrshire Active Schools have been from this sport department. That’s phenomenal.

We were recently asked to do a presentation at the Scottish Student Sport conference on the back of our five-star award. The presentation was the culture of volunteering. It’s now expected that if you come to Ayrshire College’s sport department you’re going to be volunteering in the community.


It’s taken a long time to get to that point. That didn’t happen in one year.

I think people might have previously thought ‘why would I volunteer?’, but now we don’t have to sell it at all because of the success our students have achieved from it. We give them exposure to things they might not have thought about doing as a career, like working with disabled people, or working with older adults. Look at our previous Student of the Year, David Cunningham, as an example. He’s now a manager for Partners for Inclusion. That’s providing 24-hour care for people with disabilities. Prior to coming to college he’d never have thought about doing something like that.

Award recognition

To be honest, I was more chuffed that the department (for Innovation) and a student (Stephen Wilson for College Candidate of the Year) won at the SQA Star Awards than I was about picking up an award myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I do feel lucky to have won the SQA Champion award. I feel lucky to have such good staff, students and community partners. However, I’m just the person that’s the figurehead for this building that happens to receive the trophy. It’s a culmination of everyone working together.

I’m getting personal here, but my Dad died two years ago. When Kay Adams announced my name as the winner, I was outside talking to the janitor. The award itself is just a bit of glass, but my Dad would’ve been chuffed with the achievement. My mum now has the trophy on her mantelpiece.

However, I reiterate that although we’ve been quite successful in awards recently that’s not because of what I’ve done. It’s a collective team.

It’s not just the lecturers either: it’s Fiona Oswald at reception, it’s Bob Ferguson the janitor, Lesley Higgins at Student Services, Helen Chambers at Inclusive Learning, the canteen staff, the construction staff next door. You can’t do it in isolation. You’ve got to make that big difference as a team. The staff are brilliant. We all have a common goal. We go to competitions and events together. It doesn’t feel that there’s a hierarchy as such – “I’m a lecturer you’re a student”, or “I’m a curriculum manager and you’re a lecturer” – everyone works together.

For the last four years, a student from our departmenthas won Overall Student of the Year for the Kilmarnock campus. Somehow we continually manage to get students to that level.


These student have also been recognised nationally. In the last 4 years:

Mary Palmer

  • Highly commended – SQA College Candidate
  • Highly Commended – College Development Network Student Contribution

David Cunningham

  • Highly Commended – SQA College Candidate

Angela Alexander

  • Winner – SQA College Candidate
  • Winner – College Development Network Student Contribution

Stephen Wilson

  • Winner – SQA College Candidate
  • Highly Commended – College Development Network Student Contribution

The plans for 2016

Recently I was down at the Citadel for a meeting with Ayrshire Sportsability and Scottish Disability Sport. We’re organising a week-long programme of activity of disability sport. That’s five days of boccia, swimming, athletics and football. It’ll be the first of its kind – up until now we’ve just had days of these activities. But now we’re looking at identifying talent and creating a pathway for them to move up.

The SQA disability unit that I’ve written in conjunction with Ayrshire Sportsability and Scottish Disability Sport means that our students will be the first students in Scotland to have a customised SQA qualification in Inclusive Sports leadership. So we need to create opportunities where our students get exposure to disability client groups doing a variety of different sports.

I’m helping to create a programme of activity of competitive sport that covers the whole of Ayrshire and is creating opportunities for our students. And, of course, there’s also the small matter of our move to the brand new Kilmarnock campus in 2016.

ayrshire college-82.JPG

The move to the new build will change things for the students, and the staff. We’ll be able to get more community groups in, we’ll be able to get busloads of schoolkids in. From that point of view it’ll be phenomenal. However, a big aim for me will be trying to keep the great community spirit we have over here. We’re a tight-knit bunch in this small building, the students all know each other. Some of them are here for four years, and they pass Fiona in reception every morning. I’m a big believer that it’s not the bricks and mortar that makes the College, it’s the people within it. Although the facilities will be absolutely brilliant, we have to ensure that we keep the bond that we have formed.

The man behind the success

I’d say I was pretty decent at all sports. I wouldn’t have been brilliant at any, but decent in them all. When I was at university, I played for just about every team going – football, volleyball, rugby, hockey, shinty etc. Since I’ve been in this job, I’ve only played about two games of table tennis. I mean, I could probably still beat you, but it can be hard to find time for playing sport now.

Sport is a vehicle to improve people’s lives. Kids leave school with no qualification, no experience, but if they’ve got an interest in something we try to work with them to develop that and give them opportunities. 

We can make their lives better.

It doesn’t have to be sport – it can be music, art, maths, drama, it’s just about giving people an opportunity, and that’s the great thing about college.




Trainee site manager talks us through the new build

It feels fantastic to be able to say we will be opening the doors to our new Kilmarnock campus building THIS YEAR!

2016 has come around quickly and when September hits, thousands of students will descend on a brand new campus at Hill Street with amazing state-of-the-art facilities.

It’s an exciting time for everyone involved in the project. No more so for Rachel Kyle, who, after studying Construction at Ayrshire College, landed her first job with McLaughlin & Harvey as a trainee site manager on the new college campus.

We took you through a day in the life of Rachel not long after she began the role, and just over one year on we’ve caught up with Rachel again to find out: how the build is going as it enters its final stages, how she’s grown in the role, and what’s next for her at McLaughlin & Harvey.



Rachel with then-First Minister Alex Salmond at the beginning of the build

“I’ve been on site as a trainee site manager for more than 18 months now, so as you can imagine over that time I’ve gained a lot of experience. My role involves looking after the day-to-day organisation of the sub-contractors, health and safety of the site, community engagement, making programmes, organising deliveries, materials. Anything to do with the site, you name it, I’m doing it.

“We have challenges every day. Nothing that we can’t get over though. People come to me with problems and sometimes they think it’s the end of the world, but the main thing is to look positively to find a solution.

“I think it takes a certain type of person to do any sort of management role.


“I think you need to be good with people, you have to be able to speak with people at different levels, at different times, and understand that they might be under different pressures to someone else.

“If they are not performing then it’s your job to be able to recognise that and say “this can’t go on this way, this needs to happen”. I think if you’re fair with people then there’s no limit to what you can achieve.

“Construction has always been in my family. My Dad was a construction manager years ago and I’ve worked in the building materials industry from the age of 18.

“I left that job to go back to college, and since then I’ve got the job with McLaughlin & Harvey and I’m now in third year at university.


“I started my HNC Construction at the Kilwinning campus two and a half years ago. We went down to Nethermains for the likes of surveying, but there was a lot of time spent in the classroom.

“It was theoretical knowledge, drawing, CAD, things like that. At the end of that we had a final graded unit which was to design, cost and procure a single storey extension, which I felt I gave away part of my life doing! But I got there in the end and I got an A. A few days after that I got the job with McLaughlin & Harvey, so it was all moving pretty fast.

“They’re a great company to work for. I’ve had great mentors and you’re always supported no matter what you do. You’re encouraged to make your own calls. In this sort of job you’ve got to be able to do that – there’s not always going to be someone there to hold your hand. It’s quite good that you’re able to grow and develop yourself.

“It’s great to be working on the College build. It’s a fantastic first job for me and it’s nice that I’m back where I started my career in construction management.

“We’re right on schedule for where we need to be.


“My step-daughter goes to the Kilmarnock campus so I know what it’s like now. The new build is a fantastic space. It’s brighter, lighter, more modern and there will be real life situations like the working kitchen and the working salon. There’ll also be a fantastic STEM block.

“I think a lot of the things we’re bringing in here are very exciting. There’s lots of new equipment coming so it’s going to improve the learning environment overall.

“I haven’t been told what I’ll be working on next. This job is due to finish in May, so I’ll be here up until then, maybe a bit past it to make sure everything’s snagged. Then I’ll get told where I’m going next.

“I’ll officially finish being a trainee once I’ve completed my degree, which will be another year and a half.

“I’m studying at Glasgow Caledonian University. I’m doing it on a part-time day release basis, which is one day a week for 10/11 week blocks twice a year, so really I’m only out 20 days a year.

“I was already due to start the degree before I got offered a job. So the plan was to go there full-time. However, McLaughlin & Harvey were happy for me to continue and finish the degree by accommodating the day release.”

10 reasons why you should study Business Administration

1. Lots of job opportunities: Business courses introduce you to marketing, human resources, accounting, ICT, customer care. Every organisation needs people who have these skills.

2. Increases your confidence: Business courses are all about developing your interpersonal skills so that you feel more confident dealing with people in the workplace. We do this by involving you in hands-on activities such as group projects and fundraising.

3. Prepares you for the modern office: You will learn how to use the most up-to-date ICT Microsoft packages. If you have great ICT skills you will be immediately effective in the workplace.

4. Improves your communication: Business people need to be able to write reports, letters, and e-mails, deliver presentations or negotiate deals with customers. We also develop your listening skills and raise awareness of the importance of body language. Our employers tell us communication is one of the most important skills they look for in applicants.

5. Become a great team player: It’s all about the team! In our collaborative learning environment you will learn to work as a team, how to get the best out of your team and discover what your role is in a team is.

6. Learn to deliver exceptional customer service: For business success you need to understand your customer needs and deliver a service that exceeds their expectations. A business course will show you how to achieve this.

7. You can exploit your creativity: Have you got good ideas? Are you innovative? Are you a detail orientated person? A business career gives you opportunities to make a real impact by tapping into your creative side.

8. If you love a challenge: Employers need qualified business people who can help them solve problems and make decisions that will generate wealth for their business. If you are a hands-on person who likes to deal with practical – often tedious – problems that have to be overcome to keep a business functioning, then a business course might be for you!

9. Because you are a people person! You like to talk, discuss, debate, negotiate but most of all feel your contribution is helping. “People buy people” so if you are good at interacting with people and enjoy the experience you will get the most out of a business course.

10. Want to be self-employed? A business course can help you achieve the knowledge and skills you will need to manage your own business. Stop dreaming and start believing in yourself – you can make this happen!

Once qualified you will have a range of skills allowing you to work in various areas of a business including marketing, sales, customer service, HR, accounting, ICT and admin. College is a great place to start a highly successful and rewarding career. Here are some of our business students who have made the decision to do just that.

Nichola Noble HNC Admin and ICT

Nichola Noble from Kilmarnock is a current student on the HNC Administration and ICT course.

I left school and went straight into work as a waitress. Over the next ten years I held a variety of jobs like cleaner, factory worker, sales assistant. I had no career plan and my main motivation was to earn money. However it was a great life experience and I learned customer service skills, how to work as a team, how to motivate a team, cash handling, sales and marketing techniques.

Then came a time when I thought – I need to do something with my life.

With all the business and administration skills I had learned on the job I was naturally attracted to get qualifications in these areas. I started with NC Administration and ICT Level 6. I was scared to be starting my education again at 27 years of age and although it has been hard financially I enjoy what I am doing now. The lecturers are brand new! I love Customer Care and I have just discovered Human Resources (HR) and this has to be my favourite subject. There is such a lot to it including recruitment and selection and employee practices.

I enjoy sitting at a computer doing admin tasks, especially doing spreadsheets, so I also like my ICT class. One of the main benefits from doing this course is I have improved my confidence. I used to suffer from anxiety and I feel able to cope with this now. I also think my communication skills have really improved especially writing reports.

I am a people person and enjoy helping and motivating others and that’s probably why I am attracted to HR. One of the things we learn on our course is how to work as a team and the value of listening to other opinions and showing respect.

I would definitely recommend studying a business course. It does not matter what age you are, you can come to college and develop your skills. These skills can be transferred into any job you want. But you’ve got to work hard and most of all believe in yourself!

I’m thinking about working abroad and with my new business qualifications in admin, ICT, HR and Marketing I am more confident that I will be able to work anywhere in the world.

Stephanie Campbell NC Business and Administration

Stephanie Campbell from Ayr is a current student on the NC Business and Administration Level 5 course.

I left school and went straight into work in a call centre. I enjoyed this job as I like working towards a target and achieving a bonus. I did both inbound and outbound calls and a mixture of sales and customer service for Sky TV and a credit card company. I was able to afford my own home and I earned a good salary. I then started a family and became a stay at home mum.

I am now ready to return to the workplace but feel that I need to get myself up to speed and learn new ICT packages as the office environment is changing all the time so it is important to be up to date. I also need to boost my confidence!

When I left school I did not have any qualifications, but with my work experience a Level 5 course has been a great place to start. It runs from September – December. I am moving onto the Level 6 course which runs January to June, and at the end of the year I will have two National Progression Awards (NPA) and a Personal Development Award (PDA) as well as the NC Business and Administration Award. Next year I will do the HNC Award and within two years I feel I will have achieved really great qualifications.

I knew I would enjoy the Microsoft Office training in word processing, PowerPoint and Publisher but I’ve been surprised to find myself liking the marketing and accounting side of the course. The Level 5 course has introduced me to these new subjects and enabled me to explore new things. This course is great because you are not specialising in one area – it gives you so much choice and I think more doors will open for me in my career now.

NC Level 5 and 6 Business and Administration courses start in January 2016. Find out more.