27 Feb 2023

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with John O'Hara

In this interview, we talk to John O’Hara, Senior Learner Engagement Officer at New College Lanarkshire (NCL). John’s college life began as a hairdressing student at Coatbridge College, studying HNC Hairdressing and HND Make up Artistry, then completing his studies with a scholarship at L’Oréal Professional. Ten years ago, as a student officer and later as a staff member, he was instrumental in the development of the students’ association at what was Coatbridge College and its merger into New College Lanarkshire Students’ Association (NCLSA).

1. Tell us first about your experiences as a student, and what got you into the idea of student representation and engagement.

Leaving school at 15 as a disengaged learner left me with a negative experience of school. I remember no one would listen to my needs and what I was experiencing. That always stuck in my mind and if I remember correctly, I was thought of as the class clown! I know I had a creative side, and I loved anything do with art and fashion. Many years after, I started hairdressing and applied to go to college and at that time Coatbridge was the best college for hairdressing. My experience to start with was challenging as I was diagnosed with dyslexia, but with the wrap-around services at the college I was able to apply myself like everyone else.

I remember the lecturer talking about class rep elections and I thought this sounded interesting and for me this is where it all started. I attended the sparqs course rep training and this was where I found out about students having a voice in education and what a students’ association was and did.

2. It’s around ten years since college regionalisation. What do you recall of students’ associations at the time and how they were involved in the big conversations about the future of colleges?

I was in office at that time alongside being a Student Team Member for Education Scotland and part of the college board. I have mixed emotions about it as there was so much happening around that time, job losses, big changes in management as the colleges merged, and new ways of working. But I knew though, at that time, it was right to make sure students had a voice.

I was part of many conversations and focus groups at that time regarding the merger, one being the coming together of three SAs into one. Across the three there was real variation, between good development and the SA not really functioning elsewhere. But the core purpose was for me to make sure students were fully supported and represented across Lanarkshire. It opened many doors for me within my career in education and student engagement. I still feel as passionate about the learner voice as I did ten years ago.

3. And what is the nature of your current job? What sort of things are you responsible for and what might a typical day look like?

Within my role as the Senior Learner Engagement Officer I support the students’ association and manage learner engagement staff and the projects and any developments. My typical day can really vary, but just now I am working with various student groups and the many challenges that they face, like financial, low self-esteem and confidence, social disengagement, low attendance and attainment levels. With such complex needs, young people and our communities require human connection and understanding to enter into their new world of education.

For example, I have been tasked with being a point of contact, supporting, guiding and mentoring priority students (students at risk of early withdrawal). This involves building relationships with them and their lecturers, advising of wrap-around services such as students’ association funding, pastoral care, financial support and any other relevant signposting. It is important to recognise that some of these students may experience anxieties due to never having the opportunity to even step inside of a college or that they may have been removed from education for a period of time.

All of these opportunities allow me to be able to listen to the voices of our students and bring this back to relevant committees and working groups in order to allow NCL to further develop and action what is necessary for change and accessibility for our students.

4. And talking of big challenges, how did New College Lanarkshire Students’ Association respond to the pandemic and the move to blended learning?

It was something we had to really work at as a whole college, with what was best for the students at the core of all our decisions. Moving an SA online was, if I’m honest, scary, as we had always been a face-to-face team. But we had to learn quickly how we could best support students, and that was by asking them. We spent a lot of time gathering feedback from students to find out how we could support them online. As for blended learning, this had a balance of positive and negative feedback – isolation, digital poverty, systems, and anxieties around Covid19.

However, I was extremely proud that the SA were able to offer rep meetings on Teams and Zoom. We held an online freshers’ fayre and still managed the 360 approach to feedback. With the new support toolkit from sparqs and Education Scotland and the continued support from sparqs, we were able to continue to represent as best we could and still have the student voice at the very centre. In fact, we presented on how we’ve used that toolkit at a CDN event during the pandemic. We were lucky to have a great Principal who fully supported the SA and staff, and his guidance was extremely important to us throughout the pandemic and very much still is today.

We learned a lot from moving from online to blended. We still use Teams for our meetings, we have a rep community online, and we can support a lot more reps than we could before. Moving back on campus though, was always what we wanted when we were able to do so, but we continued to use what we learned from both approaches.

5. How much value is the national level to you for learning and sharing? You’re a regular participant and presenter at our Student Engagement Staff Network, and have been involved in a number of sparqs’ projects, most recently our college learner outcomes work and updates to our staff development toolkit. What do you feel you gain from working with colleagues across the sector?

Working with colleagues and sector partners is so valuable in my self-development, as well as developing projects at national level. Getting other people’s views and experience across the sector and sharing good practice is a resource that is hugely beneficial to myself and the college. Working on projects that impact on the student experience and have a positive outcome is why I do the job I do, and getting these opportunities to share good practice and network is vital within student engagement.

6. Looking back on the past ten years, where next? What do you think are the challenges and opportunities ahead for student engagement and SAs?

NCLSA has developed its strategy with support from NUS and sparqs’ Developing College Students’ Associations project for the next five years to allow what’s already been done around the framework for developing a strong and effective students’ association, making sure our purpose and values are at the centre, so we can continue to support the voice of our students and give them the best student experience.

My next project for the SA is to develop the Student Partnership Agreement. This will further develop existing partnerships within the college so students can be confident that their voice is heard. This partnership also includes professional development of staff, so they are aware of the importance of course review and feedback and understanding the role of the class rep. Very exciting times for student engagement and NCLSA!

The main challenge, I think, for SAs across the sector, not just us, will be funding. This is so important for students’ associations now more than ever. SAs have to be well funded for them to continue to develop and carry out the important work supporting students in their journey while in education. I still believe in Professor Russel Griggs OBE’s 2012 review of college governance, and his recommendation that “student participation and representation become a commitment across the College Sector. Student Associations should be strengthened and become appropriately funded, autonomous and sustainable”. I will continue to support the students at NCL and strengthen the voice of the learners.


Thanks to John for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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