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Meet the Principal: Northern Regional College head Terri Scott on bridging digital skills gap and forging the aptitude to keep learning

Our brilliant new series hears from some of Northern Ireland's head teachers about their jobs

By Laurence White

Professor Terri Scott is the principal and chief executive of Northern Regional College. The college has six campuses, in Coleraine, Ballymena (two), Ballymoney, Magherafelt and Newtownabbey.

The college provides Further and Higher Education options for school leavers, as well as a range of full and part-time courses for adults, apprenticeships, professional qualifications and university accredited courses,

Professor Scott (58) is married to Chris and they have three grown-up children: Peter, Claire and Bronagh. She was educated at Thornhill College in Londonderry and at UU, where she graduated in geography and a Masters in IT.

She has worked at Ulster University, in Invest NI, helped establish the NI Centre of Entrepreneurship and the Ryan Academy of Entrepreneurship in Dublin, which is part of Dublin City University, and was president of Sligo Institute of Technology.

In 2000 she became the first woman to be awarded IT Professional of the Year by the British Computer Society.

Q. Do you come from a teaching background?

A. My mother Patsy Casey was the youngest teacher in Northern Ireland when she graduated in 1949 and she taught for 40 years.

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When she retired she then did a Masters in Irish at the then University of Ulster. Three of my sisters followed her into teaching and I also have four brothers.

Q. Were you a swot at school?

A. No, there was always a question over what I would do. At one stage I was considering going to America on a sports scholarship but I never went.

My careers advice at school was to do geography at university because that is what my sisters did and that led me to consider town and country planning as a career.

After that I did a Masters in IT and it seemed more exciting.

Q. You were also sporting.

Professor Terri Scott, principal and chief executive of Northern Regional College
Professor Terri Scott, principal and chief executive of Northern Regional College

A. Two of my sisters played netball at provincial level and for some reason coaches thought I had the same skills, but quickly - after about 10 seconds - found that was not the case.

However, I was determined to make some team and I decided to try out cross country running.

It was not a hugely popular sport and the bar was not set too high in those days.

But I loved it because I could travel and meet people in other countries.

Q. How did your academic career develop?

A. My first job as a young teacher was as a lecturer in computing in Portadown Tech. It was a real challenge teaching different curricula set by different accreditation bodies to a wide range of students, from those who had left traditional education to students on day release courses, and guiding them through from entry level to post graduate qualifications depending on their abilities.

Q. What was next for you?

A. I moved to the University of Ulster, initially as a research officer and later obtained an academic post. I arrived at a time when interest in computing was growing and there was huge interest in it and a huge need to increase the courses and the pathways to them.

Within a couple of years I became head of the school of computing and mathematics.

Q. Did that open further doors for you?

A. I was very interested in systems and processes and got involved with a lot of businesses and external organisations which needed IT solutions.

At the same time I was managing almost 100 staff.

The exciting thing about this work was that you were not simply creating a solution which worked at that particular time but you also had to attempt to make that solution future proof - i.e. still operative in three to five years and anticipating what would be needed then.

I have always believed that the minute a computing graduate walks across the stage clutching their scroll they have to begin upskilling because technology moves so fast.

Q. There has been a big investment in IT in FE colleges. How will this help students?

A. The big challenge for us in Further Education is how to embed digital skills into all aspects of the curriculum, to enable our students to adapt to future demands when they leave and are fit for work and also have the aptitude to keep learning.

Q. Employers often complain that students leave work or university without all the skills required for the world of work. Do FE Colleges prepare students better?

A. We have excellent schools in Northern Ireland, no matter what metric is used to judge them.

We are mandated to meet with employers and must show evidence of that engagement. Schools may do that as well, but it is not a mandatory requirement for them.

We need to plan how our curriculum aligns with the need of employers and we also engage with local councils - there are four local councils covering our six campuses.

For example, in Mid and East Antrim Council area the focus is on manufacturing, in Causeway Coast and Glens the focus is in the hospitality, tourism and technology industries, and in Antrim and Newtownabbey the focus is on the supply chain.

Q. Having worked on both sides of the border, do you see differences in the education systems?

A. Both are good in parts. The broader curriculum at secondary level in the Republic provides more opportunities and allows young people a greater length of time before they have to narrow down their choices.

Here we narrow down the choices for students very early.

The Institutes of Technology which have been developed in the Republic have been recognised internationally as having made a significant impact on regional development.

If the six FE colleges in Northern Ireland were working as one system we would have a mega Institute of Technology.

Apprenticeships work very well on both sides of the border, but the cost of running them in the Republic is miniscule compared to Northern Ireland's investment in infrastructure.

Employers here believe the apprenticeship system is more complex and that is something that government is trying to fix. I believe there is more scope for collaboration across the border.

When I was in Sligo there was a surge in demand for people in the building sector and the FE college in Fermanagh worked with us to deliver those trained people.

Q. Everyone agrees that money is tight in education. Are we spreading it too thin with our duplication in schools and even the size of the FE provision?

A. There is huge duplication in the 14-19 school provision and principals are seeking to extend their curriculum and remain sustainable. How can we ensure that the public funding we put into 14-19 provision provides the best outcomes for the students?

I have six campuses and those six campuses are not sustainable and they will be reduced to four - the two in Ballymena will become one and Ballymoney and Coleraine will also become one.

These two projects, costing £84m, were agreed and signed off before the problems at Stormont and we hope to complete work in the not too distant future.

But it is also about how the six FE colleges can work together and don't duplicate provision.

There is an opportunity - and it is happening but not to the extent I would like to see - of FE colleges in adjacent locations having a more progressive sharing of resources and better planning.

All the colleges are working together on major technology infrastructure and that is hugely exciting.

The population is flatlining and dipping and that creates an opportunity for colleges and our sponsor departments the Department for Communities and the Department of Education to see how provision within the FE colleges can be used creatively.

Within the schools sector we are surrounded by post-primary schools and currently there is no requirement on them if they want to extend provision to consult with us. We could be providing the same course.

There are opportunities to use money better. Don't waste a good crisis. You can then examine things that on the edge and see what effect they have and who will be impacted if they are dropped.

Q. You obviously are a great advocate of technology. Is it used to best advantage in education?

A. There are some great advances. As mentioned earlier we trying to ensure that our students are exposed to it in as many of the courses we provide as possible.

For example, our apprentices make short videos of their work and have a digital portfolio which can be viewed by others including examiners.

Technology allows us greater outreach, for example, with community groups looking for assistance.

It has changed the way we live and what we do but in spite of the advances it has not changed education delivery to the extent it needs to.

Q. Your work in FE has exposed you to a different range of students compared to, say, at UU.

A. Working with our special needs students was the biggest eye opener for me.

What I want is for their time at this college to be a life changing experience.

A friend was telling me about his brother who has Down's syndrome and who attends one of our colleges.

Since enrolling he has become a whizz on the iPad and is now the go-to person in the house when anyone wants to download a new app or do some other technological task.

Q. What are the best moments in your job?

A. Prize day is always great but there are other highlights.

For example, we have nine students taking part in the UK finals of WorkSkills later this month in Birmingham.

A carpentry apprentice was Best Apprentice at the European Alliance Apprenticeship Awards in Finland and was previously a gold medal winner at the WorldSkills UK finals.

Our students are able to take part in such competitions thanks to the encouragement and support of their employers.

They cope while their star apprentices are away.

What the success of the students does is raise the bar for all the other students.

Not everyone can be a gold medal winner, but they all aspire to do the best they can.

School factfile

Northern Regional College: established in 2007.

It provides Further and Higher Education options as well as a range of full and part-time options for adults, apprenticeships, professional qualifications and university accredited courses.

The college is designated as the Entrepreneurship Hub for the FE sector across Northern Ireland.

Number of students: It has 10,000 students enrolled across four academic departments — engineering and built environment; computing and creative industries; science and service industries and care and access.

Number of staff: 778

Notable successes: Two former students now in first year at university will receive JP McManus Scholarships later this month, giving them £5,500 a year for the duration of their undergraduate course. One has also been shortlisted for the NI Creative Student of the Year award.

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