The traditional sigh of relief in education when the Easter holidays arrive was a bit muted this time – in this year of the unprecedented and strange. Instead of last-minute efforts to impress upon students the work they need to do over the break, ahead of exam season in May and June, the last day of term arrived and went with little fanfare.
Colleges have moved heaven and earth to switch their learning online while moving the vast majority of staff to working from home. They have risk-assessed hundreds of vulnerable students to make sure that they are supported and safeguarded, and they have reached out into their communities to support wherever they can.
We’ve seen fantastic examples all over the country of colleges supplying protective gear and 3D-printed visors, opening residential accommodation to NHS staff and to the homeless, providing food and food parcels and showing their creativity to engage students in all sorts of inspiring online singing, dancing and exercise.
Coronavirus: 10 great ways colleges are reaching out
And all this in just a few weeks. It’s been a frantic sprint to get to grips with what is happening and keeping up with the government’s announcements. I’m proud of the way colleges rapidly faced up to the challenges and showed why they are so important to our society, but the sprint is over and we have now started the marathon. And marathons need a more measured, considered and purposeful approach in which everyone understands the end point and the milestones. As the marathon begins, here are the five areas that the Association of Colleges is focused on:
Coronavirus: How AoC is supporting colleges
The first area is an unerring focus on cashflow and solvency support. No sector of the economy will be unscathed by the financial challenges, and colleges are far from immune to the pain. It’s true that the Department for Education has helped enormously with decisions to pay colleges their 16 to 19 and adult education budget on profile but colleges have significant commercial income that has simply fallen off a cliff edge. We have colleges commonly with 20 to 30 per cent of turnover lost overnight, and with some as much as 50 to 60 per cent. Our work with the Education and Skills Funding Agency is aimed at ensuring that there is the right cashflow and ongoing solvency support in the short and medium terms.
The second is to think through the summer term delivery issues. We will be supporting colleges to use the adult education budget (AEB) to support more online learning for adults who have been furloughed or for those made redundant. We know that colleges will show that they can be trusted to deliver when asked to respond to the unique and urgent needs of thousands of adults.
We are also focused on how to find ways to motivate and engage the 700,000 young people studying in colleges, some or many of whom will increasingly be distracted by better weather and bored by lockdown and online study. With no exams to focus their minds, we will need to be imaginative to ensure that they continue to learn and remain optimistic and hopeful about their futures.
The third is to do everything we can to support the mental health and wellbeing of students and college staff. This will be an increasingly pressing issue in a rapidly changing and scary world with lots of uncertainty. We will support colleges to learn from each other, to find out what can work and to borrow the best practice and ideas from outside the sector to get this right. We know from previous recessions that periods of unemployment in late teens and early twenties can have a long-term scarring effect; we need to act now to prevent that.
The fourth is to ensure that we help to develop a strong support environment for colleges, which are all going to face unprecedented financial and delivery challenges. Every college leader needs to know that when they seek help or reach out for support that it will be provided with no recriminations or blame. All of us are reeling as we try to work out how to respond and all of us deserve the chance and the support to lead successfully through this crisis. We want to ensure that the system aims for and gets the best out of every leader.
Plan for September
The fifth is to look to the autumn term and the next academic year and start to plan how colleges will be in the frontline of the economic and social recovery. We know that many young people will need catch-up support. Others might need an extra period in college and new qualifications before they can find a job. Adults will need colleges to offer short courses that are very job-focused. Colleges might also need to build capacity and learn the lessons from all the online learning happening now. The government will be in the mood for changing the rules and policies to encourage these actions as well as providing extra funding, so we need to grasp that and be creative.
That’s a big agenda for all of us to work on together, and with the government. I’m confident that colleges will continue to show why and how they are vital institutions, and from that we will be able to attract the investment needed to deliver. But we will need to work carefully and as hard as ever to achieve it. I know that colleges are up for the challenge, because the past few weeks have shown the best of our sector – focused rightly on students and communities – and the best of our sector is impressive indeed.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges