Supporting colleges to support some of their most vulnerable learners

Latest blog ‘Supporting colleges to support some of their most vulnerable learners?written by Neale Gardiner, CDN’s Senior Manager: Research and Enhancement, highlights key areas of the recently launched Trauma-Informed  Programme.

When I joined CDN in June, one of the things I was most looking forward to getting involved in was the organisation’s ongoing work exploring the role of colleges as ‘pathways from poverty.’

Over the last 18 months, the team at the CDN Research and Enhancement Centre have been undertaking a range of activities focussed on this theme, working particularly with colleges themselves to research what works, why and, how we can support these colleges to enhance what they do in this area. From this, the Centre has published a series of Pathways from Poverty reports and case studies, while also producing a range of podcasts on the topic. In this way, we’ve been shining a light on the brilliant work of colleges up and down the country, for example Dundee and Angus College’s Thrive project, the Young Talent programme at Borders College, and Ayrshire College’s Connecting Communities initiative.

To be clear, however, in highlighting the work colleges are doing to support their communities tackle poverty, this is not a case of celebrating the need for colleges to provide food for vulnerable students, nor accepting the inevitability of unacceptable levels of societal inequality. Instead, it is intended as recognition of the phenomenal efforts of colleges and their staff in the challenging circumstances they often face. It’s also a pragmatic way that CDN’s research can share best practice and support the sector to do even more to support learners in colleges across Scotland.

One important, and closely related, theme that has also been explored in this work around poverty is the impact of trauma. Related in that, while trauma can be experienced by people of all ages, genders, ethnicity, and social classes, there exists a clear and persistent link between poverty and trauma in Scotland, with 10.8% of those in the bottom quintile in terms of household income having experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), compared with just 1% in the top quintile (Marryat and Frank, 2019).

As part of the Pathways from Poverty Series, the Research and Enhancement Centre at CDN conducted an in-depth analysis of West Lothian College’s journey to developing a trauma-informed culture. This report illustrated the ways that the principles of this approach have been embedded throughout the college and gave an insight into the huge impact this has had on learners, and the community.

It’s important to us at CDN that our research in this – and every other – area of our work is not abstract or removed, but instead leads to the enhancement of practice in a way that, ultimately, benefits learners. That’s why the next step is to leverage all the research in our Pathways from Poverty Series discussed above as a springboard for action, through the launch of a more structured, nationwide programme of support for colleges focussed on the final one of these areas: developing trauma-informed and trauma-responsive approaches in colleges across the country.

This ambitious new programme will be made of several complementary strands, including a bespoke mental wellbeing and health training programme for staff from across Scotland’s colleges, the roll-out of online resources focused on trauma-informed practice, and the continuation and development of a range of tailored enhancement projects supporting colleges to develop their practice in this area. Crucially, the programme will also seek to engage with college senior leadership teams, supporting them to consider what a trauma-informed culture may look like in their context, and encouraging them to embed joined-up trauma-informed approaches into their organisation’s processes and systems. The aim is clear: we want to have an impact in supporting our colleges to, in turn, support some of their most vulnerable learners.

This is important work. Not just from a moral standpoint but also, I believe, from an attainment perspective. I believe that enhancing our understanding of trauma and our awareness of its effects, can play an important part in improving outcomes for all leaners

Details on CDN’s trauma-informed college programme can be found here and those interested in learning more are invited to contact

Marryat, L., & Frank, J. (2019). Factors associated with adverse childhood experiences in Scottish children: a prospective cohort study. BMJ Paediatrics Open, 3(1). Available at:

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