Dr Paul Phillips CBE, Principal and Chief Executive, Weston College

Thursday morning, ten to nine and I have been working since about 7:30 catching up on emails and monitoring progress across the College Group. Always thought I was accessible but my newly acquired skills in digital communication have opened up new avenues.

My staff as ever in the majority of cases have gone above and beyond and as some doors close, others are opening, and life's entrepreneurs are emerging from all areas of the College. The best examples however are those that the learner, parent or employer tell me about and when I see learners from local academies wanting to join our online provision - I feel particularly enthused.

This week one of my assessors wrote to me to bring home the fact, that not only are we delivering vital training and supplying resources to help the NHS, but many staff and learners (many young apprentices) are also on the front-line delivering health and social care support that is so desperately needed.

"What are we going to do when we reopen " is the question I get asked all the time.

"We are already onto that " I respond, but we have gone back to grass roots to plan - there is an inevitability of change ahead for us and it is not a time for the faint hearted.

Blue Sky Thinking

When you strategically plan for any organisation and I have in my time run hotels, NHS research and businesses, it is always about starting with a blank sheet of paper and analysing the benchmark issues and where you need to get to. With that bit of ingredient, some blue sky thinking, wit, and damn good financial skills you can create something special.

This year for COVID19, it's very reminiscent of one of those cookery programmes where you are given a couple of ingredients and asked to concoct something special, in record time. We should not underestimate the mental health impact as we both return and readapt to a new era for Further Education.

We have one enormous advantage however this is a crisis, and FE is more than used to delivering against all odds and taking calculated risk. Why am I sure we will survive this? Well as my colleagues in FE will know, we already have to run as a business from many perspectives and we are masters of responding to change.

COVID-19 is not an excuse of why we are now in a difficult situation- it is the catalyst for change, Yes, there will be a tendency to blame it for not achieving some targets e.g. I don't think we will hit target on 16 to 19 this year simply because our NEET and Traineeship provision has been hit. Equally my Adult provision is doing very well with an expansion of distance learning.

The potential of the digital agenda

Our planning therefore uses a multi factorial set of indices including an almost pick and mix approach for learners and employers. It will be interesting to see who grabs the nettle of change, who really recognises the potential of the digital agenda et al and who slices the salami even thinner this year to maximise growth even further.

Weston College is relatively unique in its composition, so we spin a lot of plates and quite frankly it makes life very difficult from a training offer perspective, but is a good insurance if one breaks which is sadly inevitable.

I have noticed already some healthy green shoots of success in digital mind shift and a focus on minimising bureaucracy and producing succinct remote solutions for teaching and learning. I have also seen even for myself a more in depth questioning of work life balance and recognising the potential of a new digital College.

I wonder too if this more lateral thinking and determination might engender change with funding and quality regimes. When I first came to the College, attitudes and self-belief were not good within my staff and a few years later one of my team commented that I had instituted change by dragging them into a new era.

This time we are riding in, all of us on a Tsunami of change, ‘all in this together’ - old systems of approach are out of the window and we all agree there is both trepidation and excitement and of course creativity like we have not seen for some time.

Yes, there's a new breed of digital College in town, even more at the heart of their community than before and they mean business, to fight any virus that threatens our responsibility to deliver outstanding teaching and learning.

Dr Paul Phillips CBE, Principal and Chief Executive, Weston College

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