Christmas plans and our festive break will definitely be different for all of us this year, but, like many others, I am looking forward to what I hope is some respite and downtime after a difficult year. The pandemic and its unintended consequences have affected all of us in very different ways: from our working lives through to our personal lives. We’ve all dealt with change, challenge and, at times, sadness.
Working in further education, we’ve been at the centre, supporting our students and their families through some of the biggest challenges they’ve faced.
From our swift move to online learning and the disruption to student learning, through to the difficulties of exams and results days and even down to helping many of our learners to cope with the impact of isolation on their mental health. Since September, we have managed the safe return of students to campus, balancing their learning needs with the safety of our entire community and changing guidance on a regular basis.
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Throughout the past nine months, I have been struck by how this pandemic has affected some of our most vulnerable students and their families even more than most.
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There are many who rely on physically attending college for a number of reasons, whether it’s because they are isolated without that face-to-face interaction, because campus is their safe space, or because they just don’t have the financial resources to purchase a laptop or an internet connection. We have worked hard to support all of these students and we will keep doing so.
It has been a challenging year, but I know that I am one of the lucky few. So many families across Southwark – and, indeed, across the country – are losing their incomes and are facing a financial struggle this Christmas.
Low-income families who already rely on the support of free school meals during term time are likely to have been hit harder than most. The fight to provide this support for young people outside of term time has been well documented this year and while there have been many victories, I was disheartened to learn that our students will be in the small minority, not supported in this way through the Christmas break.
Feeding disadvantaged families at Christmas
After supporting school pupils up to the age of 16, the grant that our local council receives from government for this purpose is already exceeded. We know it shares our wish that this could be extended to college students, but it is just not possible. Instead, young people aged 16 and over can access support through the Southwark Emergency Support Scheme.
Currently, 130 students at Southwark College access free school meals while they’re on campus and it is incredibly important to me and all of my colleagues to know that these students will have access to a warm meal this Christmas. We feel an overwhelming responsibility to ensure that they do not go without and I am pleased to say that Southwark College, with the support of NCG, is able to provide this support over the next two weeks.
To do this, we will be making a one-off payment to those 16- to 18-year-old students who regularly claim free school meals in college and who aren’t in receipt of any other funding, to cover the Christmas period.
Southwark College sits at the heart of our community and that sense of identity and connection to those living in our local area is extremely important to us. But it is at times like this that I fully appreciate the benefits of being part of a national college group like NCG.
This year we have been fortunate to be part of a supportive network of seven colleges that can share best practice, share resources and work collaboratively to support each other and our students. When it comes down to being able to provide vital support when it is needed – such as feeding families over Christmas – we can draw on the support of NCG and our family of colleges and give back to the people we are all here for, our students.
Liz Bromley is chief executive of college group NCG