5 leadership lessons I've learned during Covid

The Association of Colleges' David Hughes reflects on the past 15 months - and says it's easy to love our colleges

David Hughes

Covid and colleges: David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, reflects on five leadership lessons he's learned from lockdown

On a rainy Monday in the middle of summer, it feels like a good time to reflect on probably the most remarkable 15 months of all our lives. The pandemic has made an impact in so many ways that we might only fully recognise in years to come, but it is good to begin thinking about the lessons we have learned from it. 

Covid lockdown lesson 1: We’re all people-people, really

Surely the most obvious lesson we have all learned is that we crave spending time with other people. Losing that freedom has been painful even for the most introverted. Technology has helped us to stay connected, but it is no substitute for the real thing, whether with family and friends or work colleagues and fellow students.

There has been lots of talk about online learning and working from home, but it seems clear to me that most people will want a hybrid future. Some time working or learning at home works if there is space, technology and it's quiet, but the social side is critical for a balance.

Colleges: Do virtual challenges boost student mental health?

More by David Hughes: Why we need a single regulatory body in FE

FE Heroes: 'The future is virtual 3D classrooms'

Lockdown lesson 2: It’s easy to #LoveOurColleges 

Colleges have shown their true colours during the pandemic – an unerring focus on the needs of their students and communities, incredible adaptability and speed of change, and enormous hard work to get things done without undue fuss. Or to put it another way – purposeful, practical, professional and principled. What’s not to love from the work colleges did to move online, to support mental health and wellbeing, keep students active and engaged and in running food banks?

Lockdown lesson 3: A decade of austerity is no longer a vote-winner

We may not all be standing on our doorsteps clapping for the NHS any more, but the sentiment behind that surely persists. Good public services, delivering to every citizen, are vital elements of a fair and functioning society.

How else would the vaccines have been developed and distributed? How else would millions of people have been able to live when their employers had no income outside of furlough payments? The pandemic has been a disruptor politically as well as socially and in terms of health. Politicians will need to respond to that, and investment in public services might be a vote-winner.

Lockdown lesson 4: The impact of Brexit on skills is only just starting to be felt

Before the pandemic, many commentators were warning of looming skills shortages as a result of Brexit, with fewer EU nationals in the labour market. Employers were starting to make noises about their fears of not being able to recruit into key jobs in many sectors – health, construction, digital and engineering, for instance. The pandemic hid this for a short while, but those hard-to-recruit vacancies are rising again as the economy bounces back. This might be the year when we see a rise in the number of employers investing in the training and skills of their workforces, changing their recruitment patterns and looking to partner more with colleges.

Lockdown lesson 5: You should never waste a crisis

For a number of reasons, colleges are more in the spotlight now than ever before and they have shown their true mettle through the pandemic. Changes have happened that would probably have taken much longer under normal circumstances, including the shift to more online teaching and learning.

With a skills bill going through Parliament this year, a White Paper spawning multiple strands of reform and a spending review pending, this is the time to build on the success of the crisis response of colleges to achieve the changes in policy and funding which will help them deliver more to their communities, students and employers.

Five simple lessons to help inform our approach at AoC to what looks set to be another busy few months ahead.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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