DfE didn’t have understanding of Covid challenge

Report finds many in FE were not as ready for online and distance learning as they had thought – and the DfE did not have a clear understanding of the challenges
11th November 2020, 12:01am


DfE didn’t have understanding of Covid challenge

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The government did not have a clear understanding of the challenges the further education sector faced before and during the March lockdown, a new report has suggested.

The report by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), supported by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), looked at how leadership was demonstrated in the UK’s further education and skill sector during the period of the national Covid-19 lockdown between March and September 2020.

Bringing together desk-based research and a survey of sector leaders conducted in September 2020, it examined in particular how the leadership of the Department for Education (DfE), the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) and Ofsted was perceived during this period.

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The report said: “A clear theme that emerged was that many in the sector found that they were not as far down the path of being ready for online and distance learning as they had thought; or at least, that there was further to go to make it a viable working proposition than they had appreciated.”

The pressure to adapt and react to lockdown had been “immense”, it continued, “but sector leaders feel that on the whole they did the right things, acknowledging the role of trade bodies in providing support, guidance and an articulation of their views and positions as they did so”.

The report added: “In terms of the individual organisations, DfE in particular was felt not to have a clear understanding of the challenges that the sector faced either before or during the lockdown, which was also reflected in the actions and decisions of the ESFA who were obligated to act on DfE policy instructions.

“IfATE’s relationship with the sector was not ideal before the pandemic with stakeholders feeling they were not trusted, a view that persisted through lockdown. All three organisations were variously criticised by respondents for a slowness of response, though this did not in itself appear to significantly affect the ability of sector stakeholders to react appropriately to the operational and other challenges with which they were faced in this period.”

The report said that Ofsted had been held in high regard by the sector prior to lockdown, and during lockdown itself “succeeded only in reinforcing and even extending this view”. 

The report added: “This appeared to have much to do with their perceived clear sightlines to the issues and challenges that the sector faced, possibly because of the high level of former practitioners that Ofsted is staffed by.”

AELP’s managing director, Jane Hickie, said: “The continuation of the pandemic means that mistakes made the first time around are not repeated.  We cannot afford to let employers and learners down in terms of trying to reduce the negative impact of Covid and supporting an economic recovery when it starts.

“This report highlights the extraordinary and swift response of providers at the start of the first lockdown to shift training and assessment online but the findings do not present a picture of unadulterated success and the sector still has much to do in terms of embracing the new resources and technological advances now on the market.  At the same time, it is right to say that the regulators need to examine their own performance.  Too often, AELP found itself saying to its member providers, “Just do what’s best for the learner”, but we have been encouraged in recent weeks by the improved communications and collaborative approach that the government and agencies have adopted to make the path for learner progression clearer.

President of the FETL Dame Ruth Silver said: “A new authority and confidence have arisen among college and provider staff as they have striven to undertake both their everyday responsibilities and new complexities in facing and handling the crisis.  

“We have seen creative and enterprising ways of leadership and a wider expression of this shift can be identified in the increasing tension between local and national leadership, which is again challenging long-standing ways of doing things in the UK.” 

“It is far from clear what trends will stick and how things will further develop, against the backdrop of continuing lockdowns and economic uncertainty.  But it is critical that we begin asking the questions now.  Some perceptions are changing, not least about the potential of technology in teaching and learning, the nature of leadership within organisations and the importance of trust, and the relationship between learning and inequality.”


A DfE spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact Covid-19 is having on students, colleges and training providers.

That’s why we are funding training to help them to use technology and teach online.  We are also upgrading digital curriculum content and resources through the College Collaboration Fund, so that students continue to receive the best education and training possible.

“Our £8 million Wellbeing for Education Return programme will also help colleges to respond to the emotional impact of the pandemic on their students and staff. We will continue to work with the AELP and the sector to ensure our FE system delivers the skills our country needs to build back better from coronavirus.”

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