Coronavirus: AoC calls for clarity for college sector

The Association of Colleges has written to the government, setting out the sector's concerns as the country battles Coronavirus

Julia Belgutay

The Association of Colleges has written to the government as the country battles the Coronavirus outbreak

The chief executive of the Association of Colleges has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson, asking for clarity on a number of issues affecting the college sector during the coronavirus pandemic.

David Hughes said decisions from the government were needed in a number of areas to allow colleges to focus on the challenges they faced: “On all of these issues, we are working with your officials but I thought it would be useful to put them into a single letter,” he stressed. 

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The letter comes after colleges closed at the end of last week to most students. “Since I last wrote on Tuesday 17 March, every college has acted on the government instruction to end classroom delivery, make arrangements to support vulnerable students and children of key workers where necessary, put in place new or expanded online learning arrangements and take other measures necessary to support the national response," said Mr Hughes. 

Although there had been guidance from the Department for Education on a number of areas, there remained some outstanding issues, Mr Hughes said, explaining that the main five, “in a loose priority order”, were:

  • The need to start work now on future skills.
  • Clarity on the job retention scheme.
  • Confirmation on adult education budget tolerance.
  • Resolving outstanding apprenticeship issues.
  • Setting up a simpler emergency financial support scheme.

“None of us knows how long the crisis might take, nor what the impact might be. It looks very likely that colleges will not return to in-person delivery until late summer or sometime in the autumn and that,” he said. “We have had promising initial discussions with DfE officials to start planning how to use the capacity in colleges in the summer term."

He said many adults would have more time to engage in training and CPD opportunities over the next 4 to 6 months, "as well as perhaps more need to ensure their productivity when the crisis is over". "The time could also be used to plan what will be on offer in every college from September onwards as the economy gets back on its feet and into the 2020-1 academic year."

On the job retention scheme, Mr Hughes said staff on the DfE helpline had already advised college finance directors that colleges will be eligible to apply for support on account of their private sector status.

However, he said colleges will need to make big changes to the way in which they work in the coming months and this implied major restructuring in autumn 2020 and beyond which may involve redundancies after this scheme closes. “In the short-term, many colleges are holding off these sorts of decisions pending clarity about their position and the expectations of them.”

“It is, nevertheless, likely that colleges may need to put a number of groups of staff on notice if they are not able to find new arrangements for them.

Mr Hughes also asked for clarity on whether there might be clawback of funding in case of an underdelivery by colleges on their adult education budget, and on the future of the apprenticeship scheme. “We would like DfE to consider a principle of ‘no apprentice left behind’ as we steer our way through this unprecedented situation. It should be possible to see most apprentices being able to finish their learning with a positive outcome.”

Emergency financial support for colleges, college capital projects and ways in which colleges can ensure students don’t miss out on crucial food support also needed clarification from the government, said Mr Hughes.

Last week, apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan wrote to college leaders, confirming that the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) would continue to pay grant-funded providers their scheduled monthly payments for the remainder of the year.

She said colleges’ allocations for 2020-21 would have been confirmed by the end of March, and “payments will be made as scheduled”. 

Today, Ofqual published a statement saying the organisation recognised learners on vocational and technical courses urgently needed reassurance about how their qualifications will be assessed and awarded in the coming weeks and months. Ofqual added it was working "as quickly as possible" to develop an appropriate approach. 

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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