2020: A whistle-stop tour of the year in FE

The year started off positively for FE with promises of funding and extra resources – but quickly went downhill from here. Here, one teacher reflects on the year
31st December 2020, 9:00am
Jonny Kay

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2020: A whistle-stop tour of the year in FE

https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/2020-whistle-stop-tour-year-fe
2020 In Fe: Remembering How The Year Played Out

As the end of 2020 is nearly upon us, the events of the last 12 months will live long in memory. The coronavirus, a national shortage of toilet roll and flour and Jeff Bezos making £10bn in a day in July - to put it lightly, it's been an eventful year.

Nowhere more so than in further education. But what else has there been to reflect on?

2020 actually started on a positive note for further education with Gavin Williamson debating additional funding for FE in the House of Commons. Between discussing an additional £400m of funding for 16-19 provision and further supporting T levels, there were hopes that post-16 education may receive promises of boosted funding for 2020-21.


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With rumblings of some sort of virus in China, Williamson's announcement of a package to "recruit, retain and develop excellent teachers" was well-received, and hopes were high that much-needed resources in FE were finally to be delivered.

And then March. As coronavirus spread through Asia and into Europe, what started out as curiosity turned into concern and grew into fear as the virus gripped the nation and the first lockdown was announced. It seems strange to look back at those early days of lockdown, with approaches ranging from full shutdown in some colleges to "business as usual" in others, and think about how little we knew.

As lockdown moved into April, moves were made to support disadvantaged students - laptops were loaned, remote learning was adopted and colleges started to creatively solve the many challenges that appeared - but many felt not enough was done and there remains little funding to support students without access to relevant technology. It is to the eternal credit of those involved that students with additional needs or key workers as close family were all catered for (literally in many cases).

The exams chaos 

As we searched high and low for hand gel and pasta, the furlough process hit colleges and senior leaders were faced with tough decisions. Without access to commercial funding streams, many colleges were forced to make staff redundant and continue furlough. More was to come as questions continued to be raised about how qualifications would be assessed in the summer of 2020.

Though A level and GCSE exams received much of the air time and column inches, further education concentrated on the wider picture of BTECs, functional skills and the wide range of vocational qualifications (as well as how practical elements would be assessed).

After much discussion and public outcry, the government and DfE devised the centre assessed grading process which would rely on teacher judgement based on all available evidence. Despite the challenges the CAG process posed, the real challenges were yet to come.

With minimal initial guidance available, and regular U-turns, many students felt frustrated at their lack of opportunities to appeal CAG grades and let down by the process.

With this in mind, FE colleges reported record results in GCSE and functional skills qualifications, but have since reported significant skills gaps from those entering in 2020/21. With a minimum of six months without face-to-face teaching, and as effective as remote delivery has been, it is likely many students will spend the remainder of 2020/21 attempting to catch up to their position in March 2020.

Emergency funding for FE

With colleges leaders and practitioners across the country urgently requesting additional funding, in September, it arrived. Described as "propping up further education", the £700m investment was quickly spent by colleges, as they attempted to offer a rich and varied curriculum, as they rewrote it to embed online and remote learning.

A significant challenge in 2020 has been seen in how colleges manage to negotiate the issues Covid has thrown at them. With additional funding slow in coming, the CAG process and the day to day issues of timetabling and staffing sessions during lockdown, tier restrictions and self-isolation/ positive tests, FE has been tested to the limit in 2020.

So, what next?

With Boris Johnson also pointing to a "bogus" distinction between HE and FE, there are hopes that FE will be rewarded with continued additional funding and resources. And with a vaccine already being rolled out across the country, here's hoping that 2021 will have fewer surprises than the year just gone.

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