College confirmed as national leader in virtual school delivery

An early festive celebration arrived for West Highland College UHI and its partners in North Highland College UHI, Inverness College UHI and Highland Council - winning a national Digital Learning Award for Highland Virtual School at the College Development Network (CDN) Awards last week.

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Katy MacDonald, Supported Learning Programme lecturer

The award is the third plaudit the Virtual School initiative has received this year. In May it won the ‘Outstanding Use of Technology in Delivering Remote Teaching and Learning’ category at the Tes FE Awards. More recently the initiative was shortlisted as a finalist for Best Use of Technology in Education at the Herald Digital Transformation Awards.

Virtual School is an innovative and sustainable partnership initiative delivering high quality technology-enhanced learning and teaching across UKs largest council area.  Three colleges, the council and 29 High Schools serve these rural Highland communities where many schools are small with less than 200 pupils.  Several years ago, Senior Phase pupils had a limited choice of curriculum compared to pupils elsewhere in Scotland and some pupils endured lengthy travel to attend college courses, often hampered with poor winter weather.  Thanks to Virtual School, 20 qualifications are now offered to pupils based anywhere in the Highlands, enabling pupils to study subjects for their chosen career.

The college was also delighted that one of its lecturers was Commended in the Learning and Teaching Colleague of the Year Award category. Katy MacDonald, is the Supported Learning Programme lecturer and had devised a highly successful use of online teaching and collaboration for students who would previously have found the use of digital platforms challenging. Katy and her team ensure that their students not only learned new digital skills to allow them to continue their courses, they also widened its use to include social activities and enable new friendships and connections to be made across different college sites.

Lydia Rohmer, Principal and Chief Executive commended staff at West Highland College UHI

"I want to commend the leadership of our Academic Affairs Team and the many colleagues across West Highland College UHI involved in shaping and delivering this fantastic approach to School-College partnerships. The success of this innovative approach has now been recognised at both UK and Scotland levels in the main college sector awards. It was also recognised as an example of excellent practice in the recent national report School-College Partnership Report - Co-Creating the Learner Journey - College Development Network (

I am also delighted that our colleague Katy MacDonald, Course Leader for Skills and Learning Programmes, was commended in the award category ‘Learning and Teaching Colleague of the Year’ for the outstanding work that she and her team undertook to create a successful digital learning space and connecting their supported learning students in new and innovative ways during the pandemic. Katy’s project ensured our most vulnerable learners were able to continue to connect with each other whilst being isolated at home, continuing their engagement in learning as well as adopting new skills allowing them to make new friends across the West Highlands they otherwise would have never met".

Further Information:

Digital Learning Award – Virtual School, Virtually Anywhere

The Virtual School is a collaboration of West Highland College UHI, North Highland College UHI and Inverness College UHI, Highland Council and the 29 High Schools in their geographical area and is designed to ensure that Highland pupils who live in remote and rural areas have access to a wider curriculum choice and high quality, interactive learning experience using digital technologies. Several years ago, Senior Phase pupils had a limited choice of curriculum compared to pupils elsewhere in Scotland. Some pupils endured lengthy travel to attend college courses, often hampered by poor winter weather.

The Heads of Curriculum and Head Teachers, together with colleagues in Highland Council have developed a common, Highland-wide, timetable to allow more and more pupils to engage without affecting their other subjects in the way that travelling to college for a day might have done in the past. The pupils choose subjects from a bespoke VS website which lists courses and explains how teaching is delivered so that pupils, parents and carers know what to expect. Virtual Open Days, standardised online applications and online interviews with staff all help to promote the programme and engage with schools across Highland region.

There is now a significant range of around 20 subjects available including Business Skills, Computing, Music Business and Aquaculture as well as Foundation Apprenticeships in a range of disciplines and involving some remote work placements.

Pupils say they benefit from a greater subject choice relevant to their chosen career, progression routes into college programmes and learning with like-minded pupils from far afield so that they learn about cultural differences. They have also had the opportunity to engage with industry experts and specialists in a highly interactive way and have attended virtual conferences outside the Highlands.

VS is also available to home schooled pupils and to pupils with issues attending school on site so that it builds development of their communication, meta-skills, digital skills and confidence and helps prepare them for further study or for a career.

And, of course, during lockdowns, VS pupils continued enjoying a high-quality learning experience in their online-classrooms and successfully achieved their qualifications without serious disruption or deferrals, unlike many other subject lessons.

For the Highlands, Virtual School is particularly valuable as it can help retain more young people here at home during their senior phase at school, where traditionally they may have felt they needed to move away in order to study their chosen subjects.  It also means that lecturers have the flexibility to be based wherever they enjoy living but can still contribute to the education of our young people.

Virtual School was the winner of the ‘Outstanding Use of Technology in Delivering Remote Teaching and Learning’ Award at the Tes FE Awards on Friday 28 May 2021.

“West Highland College UHI, North Highland College UHI and Inverness College UHI’s Virtual School model is a perfect example of collaboration and cooperation between FE providers in the Scottish Highlands, using technology to engage and empower learners remotely.” Bob Harrison, Tes FE Awards 2021 lead judge.