Raising aspirations and tackling the attainment gap through international work placements
Young learners from deprived backgrounds are benefitting from overseas work experience thanks to West Lothian College's ‘Improving Skills Through International Learning Exchanges’ (ISTILE) project.
Delivered with Erasmus+ funding, the initiative has gone from sending around 40 students abroad in its first year to sending 100 per year - with a focus on providing opportunities for those who would otherwise miss out.
As a result, the college has seen improved results and better retention rates among students from deprived backgrounds.
Daniel Evans, Centre Head for Commercial and Marketing at the college, said: “Closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers is such a drive right across the Scottish education system, it was integral to what we wanted to do. Young people from deprived backgrounds are not getting to university or into good jobs at the rate that we need to get them to."
"We wanted to get involved in Erasmus+ to help close that attainment gap at our college, particularly as widening access is one of the Europe 2020 objectives.
Get them motivated
“We got our retention rates right up and of those that went abroad in the first year 87% passed their course as opposed to the college average of 64%.
"We don’t want to stigmatise anyone by where they come from, but we try to select people from areas where we know there will be fewer opportunities, using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. It’s a really good marker for us to target opportunity towards those who need it most.
This Erasmus+ project really has the potential to spark their interest. Their eyes light up when you tell them about it, they can’t believe it
“We then monitor their attendance as we’re most likely to lose the learners from more challenging backgrounds; they have so much going on that college can just fall by the wayside.
"But if they’re part of this competition for a trip abroad, it really does keep them going. Those that go come back changed. It’s like a light has switched on and all of a sudden they realise why they’re here and what it could lead to.
“We’ve realised that experiential learning - doing rather than listening - engages students more. We’ve doubled our extended learning support team, who go into classes to look at who’s at risk of becoming disengaged, who we can work a bit more intensively with, what methods we can try to get them motivated.
“This Erasmus+ project really has the potential to spark their interest. Their eyes light up when you tell them about it, they can’t believe it. And when they hear that they’re going to get a living allowance and they don’t have to save for it themselves or worry financially about it, it just makes them so excited. They just don’t believe that anybody would do something like that for them. The financial element is crucial; they couldn’t take part without it."
Seeing the bigger picture
The college is able to use the ISTILE project as a way to engage reluctant learners and those most at risk of dropping out.
It also offers those who have never been abroad the opportunity to broaden their horizons, particularly due to the financial support and option to purchase passports for the learners - two of the biggest barriers to young people with fewer opportunities getting abroad.
It's not just students who benefit, however, Daniel explains. Staff at the college are offered the chance to get involved too - and not just teaching staff.
“Each year we send an email to all staff asking if anyone would like to accompany one of the trips. We have to have teaching staff involved, but we always encourage support staff to go too.
“Recently, we sent one of our catering assistants to Italy as a support staff member. One of our ambitions for the college cafe is to regularly have students involved on work placements or as apprentices and by getting staff like this catering assistant involved in these projects, she will now go back and think about how she can better engage with learners. We love that they’re able to be part of the bigger picture.”
Reaping the rewards
Projects like ISTILE helped West Lothian scoop the Advancing Equalities Award in the 2016 College Development Network Awards in Scotland, creating opportunities to attend events and promote the project to other educational institutions as well as Members of the Scottish Parliament.
Ensuring that those facing difficulty and deprivation have the chance to take part in such projects is one of the College's key aims.
“I’m driven by widening participation being the right thing to do," says Daniel. "It’s not the fault of these students that they don’t have the same opportunities as other people. You need to give them additional opportunities because they’ve been left out all their lives.
"The difference it makes to the learners' lives makes it all worthwhile. If everyone was doing this for 100 learners a year in every college, you’d have a massive impact on the future shape of the economy and the young people in the country.
"That’s really what widening access is about for me, if you focus on the people you’re doing it for, the bigger picture comes together on its own."
Want to find out more about widening participation? Take a look at our dedicated Learning Networks page!