From education to employment

5 Lessons FE sector and government must learn from first Covid lockdown to avoid future mistakes

Association of Employment and Learning Providers managing director, Jane Hickie

New @AELPuk & @FETforL research on Covid’s impact on the further education and skills sector shows that training providers, colleges and government all need to learn lessons from the first covid lockdown if apprentices and learners are to receive better support under similar circumstances in the future. 

Qualitative research undertaken by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), supported by The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), found that:

  • the further education and skills sector was not as prepared for the shift to online learning as it had assumed it was
  • other areas for the sector to address include the effect of a lack of personal human contact on motivation and engagement, the difficulty of replicating practical elements of learning on a remote basis and the extent of digital deficits among learners in terms of connectivity, hardware and software
  • nevertheless the sector took huge steps to mitigate and these deficiencies quickly and effectively wherever it could
  • the relative lack of trust in the supply side that the sector felt had been demonstrated previously by most agencies of government threatened to – but ultimately did not – hold back the ability of the sector to make these changes
  • some residual suspicion remains amongst sector leaders that however much they feel they have reacted well and learnt from the experience, this will not positively affect the way the sector is governed and regulated from above in the future
  • the Department for Education (DfE) and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) are felt to have much to learn from the actions and response of Ofsted – while the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) appears to have been viewed as (to some extent) functionaries of their political masters and therefore inevitably bound to reflect any weaknesses of their leadership.

As a result of these findings, the research report ‘The Way We Worked’ makes five recommendations:

1. Embrace Remote Learning 

The FE and skills sector must better embrace the challenges and benefits of remote learning technologies more fully by understanding the technology better, utilising it in their delivery and ensuring that staff and learners have the basic tools to be able to make it work for them.

2. Track Performance

Government must do more to work with the sector to ensure that regulation and metrics of performance can make these technological opportunities work to the best advantage of everybody.

3. Understand Mental Health Better 

The role of mental health in learning and recall needs to be better understood by sector practitioners.

4. Remedy Leaderhood Issues Constructively

There is an opportunity for the sector to learn much more about itself by properly examining the application of what FETL defines as leaderhood during lockdown – but for this to have benefits across the economy as a whole, government and the civil service must be prepared to do likewise.  Both sides must be honest enough to acknowledge any shortcomings they may identify as a result, and both sides must commit to remedy these in a constructive and collaborative fashion.

5. Increase Trust

There is little doubt that the sector responded well to the lockdown, and this demonstration of ability, capacity and leaderhood should be reflected in a shift in the perception of the government and its regulators towards the sector through increased trust and a better appreciation of the impact of their rules on the vast majority who try to do the right thing.

While lessons learnt need to be acted upon, the report’s positive findings on the sector’s response to the lockdown give cause for optimism.

President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership, Dame Ruth Silver, said:

“A new authority and confidence have arisen among college and provider staff as they have striven to undertake both their everyday responsibilities and new complexities in facing and handling the crisis.   We have seen creative and enterprising ways of leadership and a wider expression of this shift can be identified in the increasing tension between local and national leadership, which is again challenging long-standing ways of doing things in the UK. 

“It is far from clear what trends will stick and how things will further develop, against the backdrop of continuing lockdowns and economic uncertainty.  But it is critical that we begin asking the questions now.  Some perceptions are changing, not least about the potential of technology in teaching and learning, the nature of leadership within organisations and the importance of trust, and the relationship between learning and inequality.”

Association of Employment and Learning Providers managing director, Jane Hickie, said:

“The continuation of the pandemic means that mistakes made the first time around are not repeated.  We cannot afford to let employers and learners down in terms of trying to reduce the negative impact of Covid and supporting an economic recovery when it starts.

“This report highlights the extraordinary and swift response of providers at the start of the first lockdown to shift training and assessment online but the findings do not present a picture of unadulterated success and the sector still has much to do in terms of embracing the new resources and technological advances now on the market. 

“At the same time, it is right to say that the regulators need to examine their own performance.  Too often, AELP found itself saying to its member providers, “Just do what’s best for the learner”, but we have been encouraged in recent weeks by the improved communications and collaborative approach that the government and agencies have adopted to make the path for learner progression clearer.”

Report’s research base: The research report was based on survey results generated from 53 responses from Chief Executives, Managing Directors or Directors and Senior Management Team officials.  59% of responses came from independent training providers while the rest were supplied by colleges, awarding organisations, adult and community learning providers, charities and others.

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