Dr Sam Parrett OBE, London South East Colleges

We are starting this lockdown in a different position to the one we unexpectedly found ourselves in March  

It’s certainly not been the start to 2021 that we had hoped for with rising infection rates and hospital admissions leading to the closure of schools and colleges for a second time. 

Yet once again, the sector is stepping up to support its students, many of whom are dealing with confusion and worry around their exams. Leaders have been forced to make tough choices at pace, to which there are no easy answers. 

My colleagues and I took the decision this week that any student wanting to take their vocational exams should be able to. We realise that many want to sit the tests they have worked so hard for, while other students, understandably, will not want to come on site at a time when we are all being told to stay at home. This is a choice we want to offer – and although the logistics are tough, we are working hard to do what’s right for our students, while protecting them, their families and our own staff as much as possible. 

The AoC did a fantastic job in raising the BTEC exam issue with Government, hopefully ensuring that vocational students won’t be forgotten again. 

FE being given more autonomy

The fact is that college and school leaders know their students best. Working closely with our communities on a daily basis gives us vital insight and understanding, enabling us to make informed decisions as to what will work best for them. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in FE and this diversity is one of things that makes the sector fantastic.  

This highlights the importance of FE being given more autonomy to make decisions at a local level; something I’d like to see much more of in the coming year. 

We must look forward and focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t

At times like this, we must look forward and focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t. FE is resilient and flexible, as became evident during the March lockdown. Students were moved to online learning and achieved the qualifications they needed to progress – and this will happen again as we start the new term. 

Looking at things in a positive light, we are starting this lockdown in a different position to the one we unexpectedly found ourselves in March. We have a better understanding of the challenges being faced by our communities; digital poverty being a significant one.  

To help address this, we have identified students in need and accessed nearly £200,000 of funding from the GLA to help us provide over 750 laptops and internet connections. The DfE has now extended its laptops for schools programme to FE, which is an important and positive step. We have taken the additional step of letting students who don’t have remote learning equipment to access our Learning Resource Centres, where they can take part in the online study programmes. 

Able to hit the ground running

Adapting to remote teaching and learning takes time for both students and teachers, but again, experience from the first lockdown means that we are now hitting the ground running in terms of effective delivery and ensuring students benefit from continuity of their studies.  

There has been much deserved recognition of the sector’s civic response during the last year. Colleges not only continued to provide education, but staff and students stepped up to support one another and their wider communities. This demonstrated the very real and positive impact that a strong college has in its local area, making a difference to many people’s lives and acting as an anchor institution. I have no doubt that as we enter yet another tough period, the sector will continue to step up in this way. 

The role of colleges in the national effort to beat the virus

I am extremely proud of our own college’s partnership with the Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust, to support rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine. We are providing training and supporting recruitment into a wide range of NHS roles, which are needed to deliver the most important immunisation programme of our generation. This is an important example of the role that we and other colleges are playing in the national effort to beat the virus – way beyond simply providing courses. 

I am hopeful that recognition of FE’s essential role within the education ecosystem will continue to grow. The Government regularly talks about the importance of skills and training for our post-Covid economic recovery – and we must step up to this crucial challenge by supporting people into fulfilling jobs and much needed roles. 

It is an extremely tough time all round and will continue to be for some months. However, the FE sector will continue to rise to these challenges, as it always does, and I am hopeful of much brighter times further ahead in 2021. 

Dr Sam Parrett OBE, London South East Colleges

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