Boost for further education centre in Southern Isles

Friday 19 September 1997

Boost for further education centre in Southern Isles

Ambitious plans to create a £1 million further education centre to serve the Uists and Barra have taken a major step forward with a six-figure funding pledge from the area’s local enterprise company.

Western Isles Enterprise is to provide a £350,000 funding package towards the creation of a new centre at Benbecula, which is seen as a vital plank in providing access to education and training in the Uists and Barra for islanders. Now a bid has been lodged for £700,000 in European Objective 1 aid, with a decision expected before Christmas.

WIE chief executive Donnie Macaulay said the centre would be one of the most important investment decisions by WIE in the islands, aiming to reverse the decline in population, particularly among young people. The project is being led by Lews Castle College, and principal David Green said the enterprise company’s support was vital to the development.

The college currently provides a limited number of short courses in the Uists and Barra and has recently embarked on its first full-time course. A network of local training providers deliver a range of other skills initiatives, funded mainly by Western Isles Enterprise.

Mr Macaulay said the lack of a dedicated further education facility serving the Uists and Barra was a major constraint on development, and also in sustaining the islands’ Gaelic culture and heritage. “It means we are unable to realise the full potential of local people, while businesses are disadvantaged as they do not have access to the full range of skills they require to remain competitive,” he said.

The proposals for a college, to be sited near the six-year Sgoil Lionacleit, have been developed over the past two years and have involved widespread consultation with the community. Funding from WIE, the Scottish Office and European Leader II programme has enabled Lews Castle College to take on a full-time development worker, Gordon Wells, to work up the proposals in detail.

David Green said: “This is very much a facility geared towards the needs of local people but which would also be outward-looking. As part of the Lews Castle College set-up I would also hope that the centre will become a local access point for the University of the Highlands and Islands.”

Mr Macaulay said initiatives such as the small-scale Barra Learning Centre had shown how Lews Castle College could offer courses at considerable distance from Stornoway. “It is important that this centre has a distinct identity and an appropriate student-teacher feel, while complementing the excellent work which has been going on at Sgoil Lionacleit. Its proximity to other training providers also offers several advantages in integrating training and learning.”

Mr Macaulay said the project showed the benefits of partnership at inter-agency level. Western Isles Council has made available the site near Sgoil Lionacleit and Lews Castle College will own and operate the facility. “The role of WIE has, to date, principally been that of a catalyst.”

The centre would be a two-storey building equipped with classrooms, laboratory or workshop, computer suite, video-conferencing equipment and a creche. Although operated by Lews Castle College, it is expected that the facilities would be open to a wide range of training and other groups. Three small units designed to provide workspace for new business start-ups have also been incorporated into its design.

Subject to completion of a funding package, it is hoped that the centre could be open within the next two years.