#MyAyrshire - Shona Howat, Curriculum Manager - Essential Skills, Supported Learning & ESOL

June 12, 2020 - Shona Howat

Shelagh McLachlan, Head of Marketing and Front of House at Ayrshire College, spoke to Shona Howat, Curriculum Manager - Essential Skills, Supported Learning & ESOL at Ayrshire College, about her team, in the second of our new blog series #MyAyrshire

5 things you love about the Supported Learning Department

Our students

They are the reason I continue to enjoy my job. They inspire me every day as I see the adversity that they face in life and how resilient they have to be. I love how they always manage to surprise me with their skills and talents. It always reminds me how much they can be underestimated because they have an additional support need. Our students have learned to be part of a world that often does not meet their needs and as a result, it is fascinating to see the creativity with which they adapt in order to be part of it. The best lesson I have learned from them is that we should always question our practice to make sure it is inclusive and be mindful that it should reflect the times we live in. Our students motivate me to make our department the best it can be to help them in life, learning and work.

Our team

Our team of lecturers are talented, creative and supportive. They selflessly give up lunchtimes and break-times to offer pastoral care to any of the students when it is required. They build excellent rapports with parents, guardians, partners and students, which is the key to the success in our department. The team create an environment in which students thrive, as they feel safe, supported, respected and challenge by the lecturers who teach them. As a manager, I feel very supported by them too. Any challenge that I present to them, they undertake with enthusiasm and care. It is clear to me that it is very important to them to get it right for every one of our students as they often make bespoke plans to support our students on an individual level. It is not always easy with students as they face many challenges, but the team always continue to support them.

Our approach

Our approach to learning and teaching is a project-based model. It is important for us as a team to reflect the real world the students will be entering into post-education. No skill is used in a stand-alone fashion so we believe no unit should be taught like that either. We overlap units to overlap the skills we need to solve problems in work and in life. Students enjoy this approach as they talk about their projects and events with enthusiasm and, I believe, this is why our students engage well in our classes.

Our creativity

As a department, we are never content to repeat the same project twice. We understand that what works for one group of students probably will not work for another. We like our students to feel they have input into their curriculum. Therefore, our team are continuously developing new materials, testing new apps, exploring outdoor learning approaches and so much more. They have an unquenchable thirst for making the learning the most relevant, engaging and as fun as it can be.

Our Ethos

As a team, we take our role very seriously as advocates for our young people who may not have a voice or the support in life that they need. Our level of pastoral support is high and we link very closely with partners to ensure our young people are receiving everything they need in order to succeed. I love that students who have left our department to undertake mainstream courses or job training come back to visit us. It is great to hear how they are progressing in life and work. It is a privilege to be part of their journey.

What motivates you to run such a successful department?

I think the team and I would both say the students. Our department can be quite a demanding area to work in but we all enjoy making a difference in our students’ lives. We have students who have little confidence due to the experience they have had in education as someone with additional support needs. Some students have experienced bullying, feel different or misunderstood.

I am motivated, as I want to create an environment in which they feel included, understood, encouraged and safe. The team share this vision and we make this our overarching aim for all of our courses.

How do you inspire your team to achieve the goals you set?

I think we inspire each other. I may lead the team and co-ordinate our department but it is important that I am approachable and am team member. This helps me to listen and understand what is working well, what needs to be adapted and improved. I would like to think they feel supported, listened to and encouraged to share their ideas. We have an excellent working relationship and we discuss everything together before making any firm decisions about the curriculum or students.

I respect that they are professionals who are experts in their field and am cognisant that they need to feel that they can the autonomy they need in order to develop their learning and teaching approaches. I believe this approach to leadership inspires them to achieve the goals that we need to achieve to be successful as a department.

What are some of the achievements that you are most proud of in Supported Learning?

We have added the theme of Health and Wellbeing to all of our courses. We recognise that if we want our students to flourish we need to give them the tools to be able to manage their physical and mental health. If there wellbeing is high, we find their engagement is increased. It has worked extremely well and wellbeing hour has been a massive hit!

We received funding for our wellbeing garden. We want to encourage outdoor learning and developing skills that are useful outside of college yet also in employment. The students played an integral part in planning the layout of the garden and encouraging us to apply for funding. They will be involved in the decision-making process of how we will use it in our courses.

What’s different about the way you recruit compared to mainstream courses?

Our transition pathway from school to college is key for recruitment for us. It allows us to ensure that we get the right learner on the right course, which translates, to a low withdrawal rate.

We start by delivering units in school from S4, introducing the pupils to our lecturers which begins the important process of breaking down the barrier from school to college. In S5 and S6, we invite them to attend college one day a week for taster sessions. This gives us an opportunity for us to get to know the students better and for them to experience college without any pressure.

In S5 and S6 when the pupil is leaving school, we attend transition meetings with partners in school, so that we can discuss each pupil’s options. For those that choose college, we have a Next Steps to College Day. The pupils (with their parents/guardians) come for an interview and meet the student experience team and funding to get some advice to starting college.

Our Transitions’ Partnerships Forum (schools, Social Work, third-sector organisations and the NHS) come together at key points to share information and plan transitions together. It also gives us an opportunity to discuss young people who may benefit from our courses. These young people may have left education a number of years ago.

Our interviews are supportive and involved, as we need to have a good understanding of the needs of our students prior to the start of course.

How have your current students been getting on throughout the crisis?

The students are getting on well but they tell us that they miss college and being with their classmates. They are letting us know what they doing to keep busy at home but for some the crisis has caused some anxiety. We are doing our best to reassure them and remind them that they will see us when we return next academic year.

How have your team been coping / helping and supporting the students?

The team have been working extremely hard and have been embracing alternative ways to keep in touch our students. They try to ensure that the new ways of working are inclusive. Our level 3 and 4s have been using Zoom to keep in touch and have catch ups with the staff. The team have set them challenges to complete on closed Facebook groups and the students are encouraged to post their results.

The priority right now is to help our students complete their courses successfully. What’s your advice been to your team to enable them to do this?

Our project-based approach has enabled the team to cross-reference evidence and be in an excellent position when it comes to helping students complete their courses successfully. Our adaptable approach to gathering evidence has worked in our favour as we can use photos, videos and other methods to evidence the outcomes achieved.

Rather than advice, we meet regularly as a team to discuss the courses, outstanding evidence and specific students to decide the best approach to take to help the students to succeed. We are now in the positon where all of our results have been entered and I believe that the results are fair and comparable with what they would not have been if COVID19 had not happened.

What’s your top three priorities in your job as a CM?

  1. Provide clear and consistent leadership for the team and be a voice of our students.
  2. Keep the curriculum fresh, inclusive and engaging.
  3. Keeping reflecting and improving as a line manager, as a team.

If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be?

If based on my hobbies perhaps a writer or photographer? If based on my previous job, a translator in Barcelona. However, I really enjoy working with my team and our students.

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