How coronavirus has brought out the best of FE

The FE sector has come together for students and communities - we must continue to do so, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

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This is a time for leaders to lead, provide direction and use college resources to help our country and people to get through this crisis. Every day since the virus emerged, I have seen college leaders doing amazing things to help their students, staff and communities. They are truly showing why colleges are so important and what civic duty means at a time of crisis.

They are not doing it alone of course. They are working closely with local government to make plans with schools to ensure every child and young person can access the physical and virtual support they need. They are offering places in their childcare centres for key workers’ children, offering to open colleges with staff who already have enhanced DBS to cover wherever schools are struggling.

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They are focusing on children of key workers, vulnerable students and the wider community. They are supporting students from the lowest-income households to buy food, running food banks and opening college cafés for local people and students.

I know that in the coming weeks we will see colleges working with awarding bodies to ensure students unable to take GCSEs and A levels, plus the whole range of vocational and technical qualifications, can navigate through trying times. They will work with universities to ensure nobody is left behind in their ambition to study at higher levels and with employers to secure the jobs and training of thousands of apprentices.

It’s very early days in what looks set to be a long haul for us all, so it’s important that we help college leaders, staff and students maintain morale. At the Association of Colleges, we are focusing on how we help everyone in our sector to feel proud of the role colleges are playing through this crisis by sharing this good practice.

'A lot of unknowns'

Last week was almost certainly the most remarkable in all my career. The pace at which things changed was incredible. At the beginning of the week, meetings and events were still happening as organisations began to wonder what might happen. By Wednesday, when the education secretary announced the partial closure of all colleges and schools, we were in a very different scenario.

Through the week, our members across the country were desperate for clarity and certainty where none existed. Our advice was and still is for college leaders to act for the best interests of their students, staff and wider community, based on the evidence, advice and context they face. Perhaps the only thing that is clear is that there will be lots of unknowns, lots of uncertainty for some time to come.

In that scenario, we are keen to learn from what colleges are doing because sometimes that can become the advice for the future. By working with colleagues in government departments and agencies, we will need to work through the challenges together, deciding what is best as we go. To do our bit, we are communicating daily with colleges and have established new virtual networks for college staff to ask questions, share what they are doing and support each other.

Leaders of colleges know what is best for their staff, students and local communities. We have pledged to help them feel empowered to make decisions quickly, safe in the knowledge that they will be supported for working hard to do the right things. That’s not easy when college solvency is at risk and cashflow forecasts are looking dire; the letter from Gillian Keegan late on Friday night has helped, by promising profile payments on some income lines. More will be needed, with so many colleges having diversified their income over recent years. One college leader was asking last week what they should do to safeguard his college which has 37 per cent of income from commercial payments and fees that have fallen off a cliff edge.

Nobody knows how this will all pan out, but it is tough and it is scary for everyone. Working from home is difficult, putting new and different pressures on people, so the mental wellbeing of staff, students and of leaders is an enormous concern. If the crisis lasts for several months, then this will become a top priority and we will need to learn new ways to support people in isolation.

Look ahead a little

But we will come out of the other end of this, so it is also important to look ahead a little. We’ve started to think about the people who sadly will lose their jobs in this period and the support colleges can offer them as they seek new skills and training to help them find new roles in what will be a different labour market. We’re also thinking about the workers furloughed in the coming months to see if colleges can offer any online training for them which will help them in whatever the future holds – new skills and CPD can be achieved if we support people properly.

We also want to start thinking about the retraining and upskilling which colleges can offer to employers for staff who might not be fully employed in the early days of a post-crisis economy starting to pick up again. Courses which can be run flexibly and which can help employers change business practices, innovate and utilise new equipment and technology.

We may be in the early days of this crisis, but I have already seen how it has brought the best out of many people. Long may that continue, because we will need to pull together, across unlikely competitive boundaries, with strange bedfellows, focused on the greater good if we are to come out of this with our heads held high. I hope that every leader helps us achieve that, in every sector.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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