The unsurprising but distressing news that we are in the foothills of a second wave of coronavirus requires all of us to take stock. Way back in March, the feeling was that the lockdown might last a few weeks, perhaps a month or two and therefore short-term and expedient adaptations were par for the course.
No one expected things to last this long and the high-energy levels and focus that come with a short, sharp crisis have run dry. People in every walk of life are tired and craving certainty and clarity at the very time political leaders, under severe pressure themselves, seem to be struggling to offer much.
For those of us in the more straightforward world of further education and colleges, I am offering 11 areas of focus for us work on together. In so doing, I am hopeful that readers will respond with edits and additions as well as some affirmations.
Coronavirus: How do you deal with 15 Covid cases in 4 days?
Student voice: What is it like for students to be back in class?
1. Taking the long view
The second wave of the virus looks set to last some time, so we need to be planning for at least the whole of this academic year, perhaps longer. It helps nobody to limp along with short-term decisions and uncertainty. College students, staff and leaders need to know how the whole year will play out and what the new rules of the game are, and they need that urgently. The new restrictions announced today might ease, a vaccine might arrive, treatments might improve, testing might become more accessible and quicker... But it’s highly likely that the disruptions to life, work and learning we have now will persist. We need to reach a new level of stability so that everyone can focus on the day job of helping and supporting students to study, learn, train and progress.
2. Colleges are different to schools
Priority has been and will continue to be given to keeping schools open. We all understand and appreciate that, given the importance of young people’s education and the centrality of schools to enable parents to work. But colleges are different and vital, not least because they cater for thousands of young people who may not require the same level of care from parents, but who also deserve the very best educational support through this crisis. They also cater for adults of all ages, many studying full-time and many attending part-time while also working. Their students come from across communities and from wider geographical footprints. They are simply just very different and deserve and require bespoke guidance and support from the government rather than being subject to inappropriate and at times unworkable schools-based guidance and rules.
3. Blended learning is not second-best
The desire to have school pupils attending full-time has spilled over to the same guidance and expectation for 16- to 19-year-old college students. This is unfortunate, given how effective a blended face-to-face and online offer can be for that age group, and flies in the face of the incredible shifts colleges made to deliver high-quality online learning in the summer term. The Ofsted review showed that moving wholly online is not desirable for many learners, but also that a great number of them really enjoyed and benefitted from the change. Blending face-to-face with online has been part of the FE experience for many students in recent years and should be supported, encouraged and developed, not frowned upon.
4. Student wellbeing should be central
I struggle to remember what it was like to be 16 or 17, but it doesn’t stop me worrying about the mental wellbeing of young people during this pandemic. It is not easy to be in lockdown, to have your life disrupted, to be uncertain about what might happen in the coming months. The labour market will not be kind to new entrants with little experience for at least a few years, so it’s easy to see how a lack of hope for the future might become the norm. That’s why we need more focus on wellbeing and on helping young people map out clear paths through education that motivate and inspire them.
5. Economic growth sectors need skills plans
It’s too early to say just how the economy will respond over the coming months and years. The end of furlough next month adds to the uncertainties. What we do know is that some sectors are likely to grow sooner and faster than others – construction and infrastructure, digital, logistics, health and social care are obvious candidates, but we should add to that the green economy. All will face skilled labour shortages, particularly at levels 3, 4 and 5, which colleges can help meet, but only if the planning and engagement with employers starts now. Developing job-growth sector skills plans in partnership with employers and colleges will boost growth and provide pathways for students to start on, with the confidence that good jobs will be at the end of them.
6. College financial resilience needs more attention
After a decade of neglect and austerity, college finances were weak but improving. The recent NAO report was just the latest confirmation that we need a fairer funding settlement and policy environment for colleges. The pandemic has brought significant additional costs, volatility in enrolments both up and down, a collapse in commercial income, pressure on college higher education and severe reductions in apprenticeships. Without due care and attention at both the individual college and sector level, we face the prospect of many colleges continuing to be financially weak at the very time that their services, vibrancy and offerings are going to be more and more in demand. The capacity to deliver for the medium term is in danger of being dismantled due to short term cash pressures, particularly for apprenticeships.
7. The intervention regime is not fit for purpose
The very public intervention regime that only colleges (not schools or universities) are subject to is not working. It might be fair enough where an individual college is weak, but it makes a lot less sense at a time when every college is reeling from the Covid impacts. Our assessment is that as many as half of all colleges will face cashflow strain this academic year. If that is true, we could have more colleges in intervention and with notices to improve than those without. For at least this year we need to segue from an intervention regime to a support regime. Where colleges have strong leadership and plans, the government needs to be a partner and supporter in their implementation.
8. Urgent decisions are needed to avert another exams crisis
The problems with this year’s exams and assessments has deeply undermined confidence in the qualifications system. We need urgent decisions to introduce more ongoing and bite-sized assessments, systems for moderating teacher assessments to achieve fairness and consistency, and clarity on how disruptions for students will be taken into account. Having just the plan A of running exams in the summer feels like a bold and perilous step if no other measures are taken and it’s unlikely to build confidence given this summer’s experiences.
9. The digital divide is widening
Inequalities in educational achievement remain a longstanding feature of our society, but the pandemic looks set to exacerbate them. One clear driver is that too many students are unable to access devices, internet and quiet spaces to work in. Large numbers of college students will struggle unless a concerted effort is made to support them. Colleges can do that but need government cash to help.
10. Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a glaring light on racism across our society, within our institutions and structures. Sadly, the college sector is not immune. Much work is needed to understand the lived experiences and outcomes for BAME students and staff in order to address those inequalities and create true equity in education, where everyone feels they belong and can succeed. The AoC is working on an action plan with a range of partners, through our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Steering Group, which we will publish in October.
11. The FE White Paper and spending review can deliver a better future
Finally, we must not forget that this autumn should be a turning point for colleges. The White Paper and the spending review offer platforms for this government to back its strong rhetorical support for colleges, for levelling up, for the importance of technical education with a better policy environment and the funding to make great strides. For AoC and college leaders we need to reserve some energy and resource to maintain the high profile colleges have achieved in the last few years. Colleges Week (19-23 October), will be critical to show why colleges are so important, to celebrate their successes and to provide a platform for students, employers and partners to advocate for better investment.
So that’s quite some list to work on. How does it fit with your thinking? What have I missed? What would you add?
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges