Dwarfing all the other challenges further education (and indeed the country) has faced for decades, Covid-19 is clearly having a dramatic impact on all parts of society.
But the best thing about the worst of times is that we get to see what people are truly capable of and this can restore our faith, trust and confidence in one another. Although everything around us has changed, there is real hope that things will come back better somehow – and this is what I feel is happening in the FE sector.
Background: Guidance on reopening colleges safely
We don’t yet know the end of the Covid-19 story but we are seeing people seize the moment and make the best of it. Colleges may have had to close their buildings, but teaching and learning has continued as a result of the sector’s agile response.
Tutors have had to adapt almost immediately to online delivery of classes, trying their best to ensure that students can continue their studies. We have supported our staff with digital CPD and I’ve been impressed with their willingness to embrace this. We will be building on this work going forward, as it’s clear that remote learning will continue to play a big part of our strategy over the coming months.
But I think we all agree that virtual learning alone is no substitute for face to face learning – particularly when it comes to vocational courses, which make up the majority of FE provision.
Let's focus on what can be done
The fact is that colleges (and other educational settings) must reopen at some point, something the government, unions and the public clearly acknowledge. There is no easy or right answer to when or how this should happen – and safety must be paramount. But now is the time to focus on what can be done, rather than what can’t in terms of opening up and preparing for a new academic year.
When considering how best to do this, our initial priority has been on our own staff, clearly the beating heart of any provision. We know that many staff members are facing challenges, whether this is looking after their own families, home-schooling children, coping with illness, grief and/or dealing with economic uncertainty.
Managing such issues, while being asked to suddenly adapt to a whole new way of working is no mean feat. Uncertainty about returning to work will only increase this stress. Regular two-way communication with staff is therefore key, ensuring we listen to and act on concerns and anxieties. We are keeping staff informed via regular news bulletins, one-to-one meetings with managers, team catch-ups, Zoom lunches and weekly newsletters – ensuring we consult as widely before making key decisions.
In terms of operational issues, any re-opening plan must be meticulously detailed – tracking students’ journeys from their arrival at the gates to the time they leave the building. We are considering every possible way to make the environment as safe as we can for students and staff while acknowledging that an element of risk will always exist and personal responsibility must play a part.
Key preparations for our college campuses have involved auditing classrooms and ascertaining the number of students that can be safely accommodated in each one – adhering to social distancing rules. We are producing new signage to ensure a "safe flow" of students and staff around each building and are removing furniture where possible to create more room. Hygiene and handwashing will also be key, with hand sanitiser made widely available and daily deep cleaning procedures in place.
Personal protective equipment is a major consideration for us. With relaxation in government guidelines, we must agree that by wearing masks, we protect one another. This is sensible, personal responsibility and we will be ensuring that all our sites have adequate supplies of gloves, aprons and masks in advance of any wider re-opening.
Supporting young people
We are also considering which of our students should return to college first. We have been open for vulnerable learners throughout the lockdown period – those with EHCPs, social workers and for those whose parents are key workers. Now we are looking at the next priority group, which will include those who haven’t engaged well remotely (especially at entry-level and L1), apprentices and students who are on two-year courses, looking to progress.
Another key consideration for all colleges currently is 2020-21 recruitment – from both an economic and a social imperative. The world for many 16- and 18-year-olds has come crashing down in the past two months. Everything they have been working towards and planning for has been cancelled or postponed, with mental health issues understandably on the rise.
As a college, we are trying to support these young people as much as we can. By offering virtual open days and one-to-one careers advice, we are doing our best to offer both practical solutions and hope to what is arguably one of the most adversely affected groups of the Covid-19 crisis. Enrolment will begin early this year, taking place predominantly online but with face to face support where needed to ensure all prospective students can engage with us.
We are also introducing a head start programme for new and existing students, which aims to engage them over the summer months by setting out activities to read, watch and do. We hope this will enhance study skills and motivate young people back into learning after such a long break from the classroom.
A period of real innovation
Having to change how we work is never easy, particularly when we are facing a very real threat to our health. But the truth is, we have already embarked on a period of real innovation, with staff and students demonstrating how quickly they can adapt to a new way of teaching and learning.
Having been partially open through the lockdown period, my team will testify that a gradual re-opening is not as difficult as it may seem. As one member of my team said – "Yes, you feel apprehensive but once the new routines are in place, it really does feel normal to be social distancing and abiding by the new rules."
There is no perfect end to this situation and too many lives have been lost already. But the paradox is that while no two colleges will be addressing the situation in the same way, we will continue to solve the issues with the character, resolve and drive that our sector is known for.
Let’s build on this positivity by continuing to look for solutions and helping our communities, and indeed the country, to get moving.
Dr Sam Parrett is the chief executive and principal of London South East Colleges