Leading through a pandemic: Reflections on an extraordinary 18 months

In May 2021, Collab Group released a document that outlined the experiences of college Principals and CEO's in navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document aimed to distil some of the key lessons from the previous 12 months and highlight areas of good practice and shared experience. You can find a copy of that document here.

On the 19th of July, the government lifted the remaining COVID-19 restrictions. This unique moment brings with it a fair measure of relief, but equally some trepidation. We wanted to understand how further education leaders were feeling about the removal of restrictions and the impact the last 18 months has had on colleges.

The leaders we spoke with were Shelagh Legrave of the Chichester College Group, Andy Forbes of City of Bristol College, and Liz Bromley of NCG. We asked them how they felt about the future as we slowly revert back to normality. How has the FE sector handled restrictions and what is the place of FE in the post covid recovery agenda? Below is a summary of these conversations.

The CEO's felt that as the lockdown was lifted and students started coming back to the campuses, a lot of work is needed to grapple with the emotional toll that the pandemic has had on the student community. Many students came back and reported that their mental health had deteriorated over the past year, and in many cases this had an adverse impact on their studies. Students faced uncertainty about their future education and career prospects and had to deal with the effects of prolonged periods of isolation. Equally, the opportunities usually afforded to students to exchange information and socialise were severely limited by the pandemic. These factors have led to students feeling that they have missed out on the complete student experience.

The interviewees felt that they coped very well with the past year's challenges, but there is much work to do before the sector can make a full recovery. There needs to be more funding for additional teaching hours to make up for lost learning. These hours are required to identify learning gaps that have emerged in the past year, especially around English and Maths. However, the agility of the sector was demonstrated in how they confronted the issue of digital poverty as they worked to ensure that all students had the means and ability to access online learning. However, the progress in challenging digital poverty is not complete, and more needs to be done to equip students with increasingly necessary digital skills.

Overall, every CEO felt optimistic about the future of the FE sector. They felt that the ability of college's to provide employability skills and pathways into work had been identified as a critical tool in the UK's economic recovery. The colleges have also said that their recruitment numbers are up, showing that they are on the road to recovery. Significantly, one CEO identified how the pandemic might have brought about a wider cultural shift in how young people are viewing the benefits of different education options. Ultaitmley, FE colleges could be the beneficiaries of a broader change in how young people are thinking about and accessing learning.

Once again, the college's CEOs believe that there still needs to be more funding and more autonomy granted to colleges. Every community has different economic bases. These economic differences mean that every community has different skills needs. If colleges don't have freedom, it makes it more challenging to fulfil those local skills needs.

Overall, it has been challenging for the FE sector, but the CEOs believe that the FE sector has emerged stronger. This is because skills have never been more valued by employers and government. Colleges will continue to play an indispensable role in helping employers, individuals and communities to build back and redress the impacts of this unique and challenging moment in history.

If you have any questions about any of the above, please email info@collabgroup.co.uk

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