The decision to close schools and colleges across the UK in order to protect public health was no doubt difficult – but it was welcome and we are glad that the government has acknowledged the crucial role that our educational institutions play in protecting the most vulnerable in our society. This work must continue now that colleges are closed to the majority of students and there are many things college leaders will have to consider in order to continue to protect their students as best they can.
Colleges must ensure that there are effective lines of communication open to all students so that they will be able to pass on any information that they receive to their entire student body easily. They should also ensure that students are able to have their concerns listened to and any questions that they may have answered. This will become even more crucial as the situation develops, and one of the best ways to do so would be to work with student representatives and students’ unions wherever possible.
Coronavirus: Colleges to close from Friday
We already know that examinations will not be taking place in May or June. Students will have many legitimate questions as to how they will be assessed or able to progress on to the next stages of their lives. College leaders and staff must do all they can to help students through this process, while understanding the significant emotional stress this turbulence will cause.
The impact of coronavirus college closures
It is welcome that Ofqual has announced that it does not intend to grade students purely on the basis of predicted grades, as these have been shown to negatively affect black and minority ethnic (BME) students and those from working-class backgrounds, with predictions for BME students proven to be the least accurate. This is particularly important as high-ability students with under-predicted grades were less likely to apply to top universities.
The system it proposes – asking teachers to submit a grade which they believe their student would have got, were the exams to have gone ahead, while also providing students the option to challenge this or choose to sit an exam early in the next academic year – is much preferable. However, this may cause difficulties in cases of student-teacher conflict and so it is very important that Ofqual listens to learners about the issues they will undoubtedly encounter during this process. Colleges should play their part in facilitating this communication and assisting students in complaints.
Where possible, learning should continue for all students, and many colleges are offering digital innovative solutions to allow for continued learning. This is very much to be applauded and shows the ingenuity of the sector to problem-solve in all situations. Colleges need to provide equipment and support so that all learners can engage with these forms of teaching. Many students will not have easy access to a computer or internet connection and colleges should work with local government to provide these resources for them.
Residential and international students need support
Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement on Wednesday demonstrated a recognition of the need for colleges and schools to stay open, in a reduced capacity, to support vulnerable children. Further education institutions across the UK play a crucial role in their local areas, not just in educating local people but also as sources of information and support for communities. As much as possible, this work must continue and there must be solutions found for those children eligible for free school meals or discretionary hardship funding. This might either be in the form of colleges continuing to provide meals for these students or these being transferred to vouchers for students to purchase food elsewhere.
Colleges must also consider any residential students that they may have and ensure that accommodation remains open for these students, should they need to self-isolate within it, as well as any other essential support services for them. Universities across the country are having to face up to this eventuality on a much larger scale but it is important that those students who are at residential colleges are not forgotten in this.
Similarly, support must be offered for international students to help them secure their accommodation, if they choose to remain in the UK, or to assist them in returning home if they choose to. For those international students who do choose, or are required, to stay in the UK, we are already working with the Home Office to provide clarity, protection and support for expiring Tier 4 visa holders unable to leave the UK. We would ask colleges to do the same, as well as working with their international students to understand any issues they might be facing and offer support where they can.
The coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly going to cause further problems for apprentices and NUS would like to see colleges working with employers to ensure that pay for apprentices is maintained so that they may have a consistent income. We would also ask for flexibility and support to transfer learners between employers or to transfer to equivalent full-time education.
These are unprecedented times that will completely change our society. It is the first time in history that an education secretary has closed all schools and colleges. Yet clearly there are some essential college services that must continue to operate during this pandemic, and it is very positive that David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, has already written to college leaders in recognition of this. NUS will continue to work with the Department for Education, the Association of Colleges and other national bodies to protect students during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Juliana Mohamad Noor is the NUS Vice President (Further Education)