Seeing thousands of students returning to colleges last week highlighted just how much time they have spent away.
Online learning has worked well for many and much has been learned by college lecturers about the important role it can have alongside face-to-face teaching and learning.
Sadly, though, some things cannot be learned online (practical courses with hands-on skills, for example) and some students have suffered from digital poverty or lacked a quiet space to learn in.
Others have been experiencing mental health challenges and illness while most will have missed the social interactions that are such an important part of learning.
So it is not just lost learning we need to think about now. It is much more profound than that. It is not just education recovery that is needed (although that is essential). It is so much more than that.
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Missing out on the exhilaration of college
We need to appreciate just how formative, challenging and exciting life is during those late teenage years. It is a time of experimenting, exploring and growing; of finding out about who you are, what you like, what you want, how you want to live your life.
The 16-year-olds who venture into colleges every autumn have invariably come from rather controlling, bounded and closeted schools and often want the relative freedom, self-determination and opportunity for self-expression that colleges can offer.
Some of that is about what happens in lessons, but much of it is in the social interactions. Colleges bring an explosion of potential friendships with hundreds of students from different schools; a diversity which can be overwhelming and scary as well as exciting and ripe with opportunity.
Last autumn’s intake has missed out somewhat on that turmoil and exhilaration. The disruptions of lockdowns, the move to more online learning and the requirements of social distancing have taken away the mixing and interactions in college as well as outside. Student enrichment and extracurricular activities have also had to be suspended; so none of the sports, drama, music, or volunteering opportunities that add so much to the student experience and help young people grow into adults.
Meanwhile, emerging evidence suggests what we instinctively know: that disadvantaged students have found it harder to maintain learning and progress in the pandemic. For those in Year 11 now, facing no exams in the summer, this probably will be even more pronounced than it was last year.
The tuition fund: it doesn't go far enough
The good news is that colleges will once again be safe havens for those young people. With the right resources, they will be able to offer a great experience this autumn, providing both the collective and individual support for students to flourish.
But we should also be concerned about those planning to leave college this summer; they face at least two extra hurdles because of the pandemic. The first is the disruption they have suffered and the impact that has on skills, confidence and competence. The second is that the labour market will be a tough place for those with little work experience and unproven skills.
The appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner is a great move and shows that these issues are understood and being talked about. For colleges there is a useful extension to the Tuition Fund into the next academic year which will help, but that alone is not enough.
Five steps to supporting young people
We propose five further steps to support young people through this pandemic:
1. Fair funding
Young people in education in England have fewer hours of teaching and support compared with their counterparts in other countries, receiving less than 15 hours per week compared with 25-30 in other OECD countries.
This was recognised in September 2019 when the 16-19 base rate was increased for the current academic year, but it does not go anywhere near far enough. An increase in the base rate now will help all students to get the education, skills and support they need.
2. Targeted support for those most disadvantaged
There is ample evidence that the disadvantage which holds back school pupils continues in the 16-19 phase. Extending the pupil premium to age 19 would provide targeted support quickly and easily.
3. Building self-confidence and well-being
The missed opportunities for social interactions at school and college over the past year must not be forgotten. Specific funding for after-college study, homework and enrichment opportunities would have a major impact on wellbeing and self-confidence.
4. Education recovery year
Every college student finishing this year should have access to a guaranteed additional fully funded year of study where they need it, ensuring that nobody is left behind. This means removing the 17.5 per cent fall in funding at 18 that currently exists and supporting colleges to offer the flexibility they need to help young people move as quickly as possible into work, an apprenticeship or onto further learning.
A simple, flexible fund is needed, which would allow colleges to design programmes to meet different needs and outcomes. For some students, an extra term or six months will be sufficient, while others might need a full year to progress. A bursary will be required to support students to be able to participate.
5. Joining up DfE and DWP programmes
The chancellor has invested in programmes in both departments to support 16 to 24-year-olds, but they do not operate in tandem and are difficult to make work for employers, for students/unemployed people and for colleges. This needs urgent attention, to allow a more person-centred approach in which JobCentre Plus can support Universal Credit recipients to undertake training where it would increase their chances of finding work.
I don’t like the "lost generation" label because young people just need the opportunities to flourish, to shine, to use their energy and optimism to progress. It is our job in education to offer the environment and the resources and to give them the space to grow, develop and fly.
If we do that, we might even find that the Covid-19 generation is stronger, happier and more successful than any other.