'Colleges are not buildings, they are communities'

What will really prove our worth is not how we deal with funding shortages or exam cancellations, but how our college communities prevail

Kate Webb

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I’ve always known that a college was not a building. Never more so as I sit today, working from home because of the coronavirus. However, despite this, it is all too easy to feel homeless while home working. 

In recent times, our worlds have been turned upside down. We and our families live under restrictions and face uncertainty. In education, there is no face-to-face teaching for most students. There are no examinations, no achievement rates. However, these issues, while challenging, may be the least of the problems we will need to tackle as educationalists. 

As a college, we are a community of people. For the moment, the happy incidental aspects of community have been taken away – for the vast majority of teachers and staff members there are no corridor conversations, no shared sniggering at the latest corporate initiative, there are no kind gestures: a cup of tea, a helping hand with a door. Our students have lost the collective, shared exam experience of joy and anguish, anticipation and disappointment. They have lost the community of their classrooms, the bus, train and the cafeteria.


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We are still a community

However, a college is not a building. The word "college" is from the Latin verb lego, "to collect, gather together". Therefore, in Ancient Rome a collegium was a club or society, a group or community of persons living together. We are still a community, in our own colleges and across our sector. At our college, I have been privileged to witness teachers and staff pull together in a gargantuan effort to ensure all students have access to ongoing teaching and learning. With daily virtual SLTs we have mandated our managers to make the decisions they need, to enable our students to continue learning and our staff to deliver remotely. Our IT team has moved heaven and earth to repurpose kit: we have loaded tables and office chairs into cars for people to set up at home, our teachers have embarked on novel and exciting ways to engage remotely.

Even in the absence of external examinations, all learning is valuable – in and of itself, but also because it creates a small island of normality in people’s lives. Learning is a collective and communicative experience: through technology, work packs, the phone and even the post, our colleges can offer people the connections to bridge the biggest gaps in their days.

Through the next few weeks and months, take the time to make the digital or remote equivalent of a friendly cup of tea, ensure that teleconference meetings don’t entirely take away the opportunity to ask someone how they are and work out how to give all our students and staff a sense of belonging.

When we are out the other side, when we look back on this weird and frightening time, I believe that the things that will really matter won’t necessarily be the problems that are the most pressing and urgent now such as funding, estimating student grades etc. What will really test our mettle, and prove colleges’ worth, will be how our college communities prevail.

Kate Webb is chief executive and principal at the Windsor Forest Colleges Group

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