I keep hearing the word unprecedented .. ad nauseum.

And education is certainly going through unprecedented times. But “unprecedented” shouldn't be used as an excuse. We might not have expected a pandemic but leadership is about preparation, as much as anything else, and the world is changing faster today than ever before. So how prepared should we have been? And how should we prepare for the day “normality” returns? 

Clue: normality doesn’t mean it will be the same as before.

Education Change is Normally Very Slow 

For years I’ve been hearing that the speed of change in education is rapid. But has it been? Certainly we've seen many new initiatives being launched. But they've been variations on a theme rather than true change.

Real change is what has happened in the last few weeks. In those few weeks education across the globe has moved from being classroom-based to being digitally based. Teachers, and colleges, that resisted digital in the past have been dragged into a different world. Excuses such as “we've always done it this way” have been swept away. 

Of course, it wasn't without complaint in some quarters.

The NASUWT gave the following advice in reference to partial schools closures: “Curriculum provision within schools is therefore disapplied during the period of COVID-19 closure. The NASUWT expects that all teaching, lecturing or instructing, including peripatetic tuition, must be discontinued at this time.”

Personally, I find that attitude reprehensible  

No school or college has been closed in the normal sense. Most schools and colleges haven’t closed as much as become digital. 

It was interesting to note a recent tweet from Dr Julie Mills stating “We’re not closed, just operating differently. So important to remember that a college is not a building, it is a community.”

Others have commented in a similar vein. 

Being Prepared For Digital 

Digital preparation in FE is patchy. Julie Mills further commented on how students “are so up for on-line approaches”. But not every college has been prepared to go digital at such short notice.

Another one that was, and indeed in my eyes leads the field, is BCOT. Principal Anthony Bravo told me how the changeover to fully digital was seamless. On Monday morning students logged on to find their tutor in the virtual classroom, powerpoints ready to run and handouts ready for them. 

Anthony went on to tell me that going digital was never about saving money. They are 3-4 years into the digital journey so have more experience of this than most. 

Digital isn’t perfect. Gas safety lecturers at BCOT were reluctant to sign off students where they couldn't observe student practicals first hand. Anthony supported their decision and told me that “we have to respect the tutors' expertise in these matters, the student might be gas fitting in our homes tomorrow!”

However, post-Covid, the rate of digital expansion is likely to escalate and we are already getting close to technologies being launched that make student practical observation far easier. 

And despite problems with running student practicals, it's not totally impossible. For example at Ayrshire College beauty lecturer, Michelle Howie, is running live lessons https://youtu.be/Q2r-ME0FpIg with students submitting their own videos and, instead of practising on a model, they are using themselves as models and doing their own makeup with the aid of a mirror.  It’s not rocket science.

Sadly, some colleges were ill-prepared. Indeed, one I know well recently made the digital lead’s role redundant to save money! 

Throwing the lifeboats overboard is not demonstrating leadership

Digital was never about money in the short term, it was about a better learning experience.  However, I personally believe it may well lead to lower capital costs in the longer term. More of that later. 

FE Helps The Covid Fight

We frequently see comments from college leaders that FE is going to be key to the economic battle the country will need to fight post-Covid. To me these are just words. They should be true, but saying it doesn’t make it so. I’d be more impressed if I saw some evidence and planning to support the notion. It’s largely lacking despite the need to engage employers more effectively even before Covid struck. Where are the plans that demonstrate the words go beyond rhetoric? I've asked this question many times on Twitter and elsewhere in recent months, but not one Principal or education organisation has replied to my challenge.

What has however impressed me is the way some colleges have responded to Covid by producing PPE etc. 

Some went even further and started to manufacture necessary items.

South Devon College used their 3D printers to produce face shields, goggles and other PPE for their local hospital. FE can be proud of this type of response. They sit alongside the F1 race teams that cooperated to produce respirators.

If F1 rivals can work together the education sector needs to take notice and consider the depth of cooperation that exists in FE. Could it be improved or will colleges still be rivals in some eyes?

The Psychological Impact of Covid 19

We don't know what impact the Covid pandemic will have on everyday life or colleges, but we can extrapolate from previous events, albeit that they were not as severe. 

Research into the 2008 recession is a starting point.

In Psychological Well-Being During the Great Recession: Changes in Mental Health Care Utilization in an Occupational Cohort; Modrek, Hamad and Cullen report that, “The negative effects of the recession on mental health extend to employed individuals, a group considered at lower risk of psychological distress.”

In an article entitled The Psychological Toll of Recession Russel reports that “the personal consequences of a recession might take time to "filter through" and become apparent, affecting psychological well-being years after the initial downturn.” This points to the fact that all staff and students may suffer and exhibit mental health conditions and stress for many years after the situation returns to “normal”. 

FE will need to cope with this. 

Staff and student stress are further compounded by the financial situation in many colleges. College funding is to continue but I have to wonder how this will be justified where some colleges are fully functional digitally and some are still effectively at the investigation stage. Plus I understand that the College Collaboration Funding is now withdrawn to enable colleges to focus on teaching during Covid. Will it ever return? I very much doubt it. 

As for private provider support. There are many answers needed and many providers will go to the wall. 

The Psychological Impact on Society at Large

Transport systems carrying just 8% of their normal passenger numbers speak volumes about the way life has changed in just a few weeks.  

And in those few weeks we’ve come to acknowledge the value of unqualified and low paid workers. Delivery drivers, supermarket staff and NHS staff have suddenly come to the fore. Their value to society is being recognised as never before. I’ll trade you a coach load of bankers and stockbrokers for any one of the above.  

We are also about to see the value of those low paid people that flood into the country each year to pick fruit and veg. Many are training to be doctors, scientists etc in foreign universities and use income earned here to fund their way through their studies. Perhaps they are “worth” even more because they potentially have two roles!

Habits are changing and this will have a lasting impact. In the same way as people now accept smoking bans as normal it's likely that after a few months of working from home, and distance learning, people will question the necessity of being present in the workplace or college every day.

If people don't need to be present every day do we need such big campuses? Will smaller campuses be the natural result of Covid 19?

And if learning continues after the end of conventional term dates is that the end of terms? And will September start dates be consigned to history? 

Psychologically we are going to see a need for change. If someone has been on a respirator, or has friends and family that have been in intensive care, they are more likely to avoid crowds in future. Will we be serving this cohort if we insist on term time attendance?

And if exams are being suspended this year, is there a need for them in future? Or will a better way be found to measure performance? And will it be based on academic performance or the ability to implement learning? 

Oxford University is using open book exams, why can’t the rest of us? 

These are the questions and answers we need to be addressing in the next months?  The answers could revolutionise education, especially FE. 

Covid 19 is imposing a terrible burden on society. But it could be what was needed to reboot FE and make it fitter for purpose.   

In recent months I’ve berated the College of the Future for holding so many physical meetings. I felt that, in light of the student voice on global warming, so many meetings were counter to future need and unnecessary in terms of pollution.  I also stated the public could well question the expenses claimed by attendees for travel, accommodation and food.  


I have yet to get a response from the Commission. However I’m pleased that an increasing number of organisations went partly or fully online before Covid. The number has now increased due to the pandemic and online board meetings are now the norm in many cases. 

Will there be an appetite to go back to physical meetings or will colleges examine how to expand online and shrink campus size?

The Need to Socialise

We are a social species. Our societies and success are built around cooperation and socialisation. 

The reason solitary confinement is a punishment in some regimes is that it deprives the individual of socialisation. 

Education needs to bear this in mind when rebooting. 

Research by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom provides an interesting insight into home working for employees. How this might translate to students isn't discussed in his paper. However, I suspect that we will need to modify our teaching methods and, in line with his findings, provide a mix of home and college based study.  Bloom also reported less absenteeism and increased productivity. If this translates into education it's a win-win. 


Ruth Silver has been exploring leaderhood in recent weeks. She has a working definition and has asked for input.

Conventional FE leadership seemed to be about, “We’ve always done it this way”, “we need more funding”, keeping things on an even keel and abhorring radical change. It saw huge sums spent on buildings (contrary to colleges being about communities), too little investment in digital and an increasingly bad public perception of FE with “lobster” headlines and worse. 

For me, leaderhood, is about understanding what society wants of education rather than giving them what we want them to have. The commission's questions, “what do we want and need from colleges in 10 years’ time?” sums up the past and uninspired leadership. 

Learderhood isn't about shoring up the existing, it’s about a new reality. 

Education has to undergo radical change if it is to survive

Reimagining Education & Learning

Now is the time to reimagine education and learning.

To paraphrase a recent Mckinsey quote we will then get a stronger sense of what makes education more resilient to shocks, more productive, and better able to deliver to consumers. Colleges for the future. 

Stefan Drew, previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe, Africa and the US.

Connect with Stefan on LinkedIn

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