Ann Southwood: Second chance at Newbattle Abbey College

IN 1937, the Marquis of Lothian gifted his stately home at Newbattle, Midlothian, to the people of Scotland. He wanted adults who had never had an education to benefit. As we celebrate Newbattle Abbey College's 80th anniversary this year, that founding principle is stronger than ever.

As Scotland’s Adult Education Residential College, Newbattle transforms lives. Our motto, Sero Sed Serio (late, but in earnest) describes accurately what we do; we open our doors to students returning to ­education after diverse life experiences and allow them a second chance to achieve their goals in life.

The college’s own history is not ­dissimilar to that of some of our ­students. Our early years were diverse, stop-start and unpredictable, shaped heavily by the seismic changes of the Second World War. In 1937, events which shaped the ­terrible years ahead were falling into place; Neville Chamberlain replaced Stanley Baldwin as UK Prime Minister and the Buchenwald concentration camp opened in Germany.

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Newbattle Abbey College had barely found its feet when it was requisitioned as an administrative and training centre for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (better-known as The Women’s Army) and the Royal Army Medical Corps, a role it occupied through the wartime years. From 1945 to 1948, it was restyled as No 1 Army Foundation College to offer training in academic and vocational skills to demobbed military personnel. An intense one-month course included science and maths, ­daily discussions about history, literature, economics and philosophy as well as vocational training in admin and commerce, a variety of trades and domestic science.

The fascinating story of the early years of Newbattle Abbey College, and the people who came here, is told in a film and book Sharing our Heritage, produced last year with support by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

As we celebrate our 80th anniversary, with a series of events including a parliamentary reception, I reflected that those early years were perhaps not so different to the Newbattle of 2017. The ex-military personnel coming to Newbattle to rebuild their lives were helped to find their feet after the shattering experience of war. They were given a second chance, very much like our students today.

Like those post-war students, our modern-day learners are immersed in a rich curriculum spanning the humanities and arts. The college continues to embrace high-quality debate and discussion, exemplified by our Newbattle Conversations series, which runs up to an academic conference in 2020 marking the ­college’s key role in drafting the ­Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.

There is much more to modern-day Newbattle, with a strong focus on both Celtic Studies and Rural Skills, a natural choice for a college set in a glorious 125 acres of woodland. Many of our students live on site at Newbattle and love it; it is crucial that we create an attractive environment for them to enjoy their period of study.

Many of our students have faced challenges in their early lives and for a variety of reasons, did not or could not engage with school education. Our job is to offer them that new opportunity to transform their lives. The majority of our students seize that opportunity and thrive during and after their time here.

At Newbattle, it is not simply about education. Our students benefit from high-quality teaching from tutors who are committed to building their confidence and ensuring they enjoy the learning experience.

Newbattle has a crucial role in delivering the modern-day needs of adult education in Scotland and I think we fulfil that role very well. However, we also have an important part to play in getting some of the most disadvantaged people from local communities into education, including those under 19. Newbattle has great ­relationships with local primary and secondary schools and with Midlothian Council and its community education teams. We want to be right at the heart of adult education locally, as well as nationally. Newbattle really does put its students at the heart of everything it does.

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Our mission statement makes it clear that we will promote lifelong learning, raise aspirations and support learners through transition. However, most of all, it says that Newbattle will “enable learners to change their lives”.

Those six words are as relevant, and important, to Newbattle, as they were in 1937.

Ann Southwood is principal of ­Newbattle Abbey College,