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.




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