Ian Pretty, CEO at Collab Group

Last March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK entered into a national lockdown. This lockdown, and the following lockdowns in November and January, have had devastating impacts across the UK.

It’s now a little over a year since the first national lockdown and we wanted to take the opportunity, with the perspective of time, to reflect on how colleges have responded to the arguably the most significant global crisis since the Second World War. We spoke to leaders across Collab Group colleges to understand their experiences navigating these unprecedented circustmances. The interviews covered 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 recently released: “Colleges and COVID-19” a document which distils the key lessons and observations from these conversations.

The effects of COVID-19 on the delivery of courses

When the government first enacted lockdown, colleges ensured continuity in learning by moving much of their provision online and introducing new tools such as Google Classroom and Zoom. The introduction of new technologies and the transition to online learning presented unique challenges. Some of the challenges faced inlcuded upskilling lecturers who were used to teaching in person, making sure that students could engage with their courses, fighting the effects of digital poverty, and ensuring that the pandemic did not affect students' development of employability skills.

There were many lessons to be learnt from this transition. Adult learners and students undertaking level 2 and 3 programmes and those taking courses with predominantly theoretical content thrived with the introduction of online learning. However, those who had limited access to internent enabled devices did not benefit so clearly from the transition to online learning.

Government policy response

Most colleges found that overall, the government, especially at the local and regional levels, helped them navigate the pandemic's challenges. Notably, regional governments played a critical role in supplying students with laptops and data. Other government interventions included providing workspaces, equipment, and other support to improve well-being and engagement. The GLA also recognised that adult learners would need more support during the lockdown.

Notwithstanding these examples of effective collaboration, colleges felt the government could have done more in January with the vocational exam series. There was a general sense among interviewees that the government could have clarified these exams' status in a new national lockdown context.

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 further develop strategic relationships with employers to understand their short better- and long-term skills needs.

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 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.

The inequality that has long been present in our society has been brought to the forefront by COVID-19. Digital skills are quickly becoming must-haves instead of nice to have, and this has caused digital poverty to become a more pressing issue.

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 significant 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. To read the document in full, please follow this link.

Ian Pretty, CEO at Collab Group

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