Perspectives and reflections from Further Education leaders on COVID-19

We have just passed the anniversary of the first national lockdown. It is an event that has had disruptive impacts across the UK, and the further education sector has not been immune from this disruption.

This anniversary provides us with the opportunity to reflect on how colleges responded to the effects arising from the most significant pandemic in a century. We have been speaking to leaders across the Collab Group colleges to understand their experiences in navigating this uniquely challenging environment. We discussed a wide range of topics; these included how colleges supported their students transition to online learning, the government's role in helping colleges and the rapid changes across local labour markets and economies.

We plan to release a document that distils the key lessons and observations from these conversations in the coming weeks. The purpose of this document is to facilitate and highlight areas of good practice and shared experiences. The effects of Covid-19 on student communities and FE colleges response.

When the government first enacted lockdown, colleges worked to ensure continuity in learning by moving much of their provision online. The transition to online learning presented new challenges. Teachers noticed that some students were engaging less with their courses; in some cases, this lack of engagement could be attributed to the effects of digital poverty and challenges in accessing internet-enabled devices. To help students engage more with their classes, colleges initiated a range of measures to boost engagement, including supplying students with laptops, data, and spaces to study safely. Over the last year, leaders also noticed that students studying vocational courses and apprenticeships faced unique challenges as digital delivery imposes limitations for acquiring practical and technical skills. The lockdown also impacted learner's development of general employability skills as work-based learning opportunities reduced substantially.

Support FE colleges received from their local government and the central government.

Most colleges found that overall, the government, especially at the local and regional levels, helped them navigate the pandemic's challenges. Notably, the regional governments played a critical role in supplying students with laptops and data. In Bristol, the local government worked effectively with the City of Bristol College to assess and deliver support interventions to students with additional needs. These interventions included providing workspaces, equipment, and additional support to improve well-being and engagement. The GLA also recognised that adult learners would need more support during the lockdown. LSEC received £200,000 of funding to help adult learners' transition to online learning.

Notwithstanding these examples of collaboration, colleges did feel more could have been done concerning preparations for the January vocational exam series. There was a general sense among interviewees that the government could have offered more clarity about these exams' status in the context of a new national lockdown. The government left the decision to hold exams up to senior leaders rather than announcing a clear policy decision. Students had missed a lot of practical coursework, which made sitting their exams more challenging. Senior leaders' ability to make determinations concerning the viability of exams in their colleges was not in doubt, but the suddenness of the changes caused significant delivery challenges.

The effects of Covid-19 on local economies and job market

The impact on the local economies across the UK has been drastic. The pandemic has badly impacted occupations in the retail, tourism, and hospitality sector. Youth unemployment has risen, and apprenticeships have dropped. According to DfE statistics, apprenticeship starts were down by 18% in the first two quarters of 2020 compared to the same period last year.

Other sectors have seen their employment needs increase. Construction, health, and social care jobs have become more prominent. To stay in front of these issues, colleges have continued to develop strategic relationships with employers to understand their short better- and long-term skills needs. This has included proactive engagement with employers through local chambers of commerce and developing innovative virtual work experience programmes.

Lessons learned from Covid-19.

The effects of the lockdown have led to many colleges learning a great deal. The colleges have all learned about effective online learning and have seen that many students prefer the flexibility offered by this approach. They found that online learning works incredibly well for adult students managing work commitments and students taking level 2 or 3 courses. Colleges are now starting to think about integrating online learning options into many of their courses. Institutions with multiple campuses found using online solutions has helped them cut down on time spent travelling for meetings and has freed people up to focus more on their students.

It has been a very challenging year for the leaders in Further Education. The pandemic has highlighted some of the challenges that the sector faces. Still, it has also shown that further education will play a critical role in helping individuals find prosperous and fulfilling careers at this time of great disruption. Over the coming week, we will complete the following steps for this document and plan on releasing the document that will cover these topics in more depth.

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