Between 16 and 24 my anxieties were (not necessarily in this order) homework deadlines, clothes, money and dates for the weekend, falling out with friends, preparing for exams, finding part-time work, choosing a career and ultimately finding a job. My mental health and wellbeing were boosted by success in any of these categories. The worst to happen related to broken hearts and lack of ready cash.
The Covid Generation Experience
What a different mental challenge the young people in our colleges are facing in the ‘Time of the Pandemic’ compared to my experience. Traditional classroom-based learning disappeared within a fortnight, as we moved to remote, technology enabled teaching. Social interaction with friends on-campus, managed time, access to equipment and resources to enhance learning – all gone. Not to mention the thousands of students starting college in the height of the crisis.
Part-time retail and hospitality jobs disappeared too, taking with them opportunities to learn behaviours in the workplace, customer service skills, and to earn. Back home, parental and carer anxiety about job security, reduced income, depleted savings also swirl about.
These pressures - alongside uncertainty about exams and assessment, looming mass unemployment and the high numbers of young people coming through the system, fighting each other for jobs - would compromise the mental health and fitness of the most resilient students.
Our College Group
NCG is one of the UK’s largest college groups in England. We have 7 colleges - across London, the West Midlands, the North West and the North East – with 2,500 staff, educating and training c40,000 young and adult students.
Part of our response to Covid-19 sits with our Safeguarding Council, Communities of Practice and Cross-Group initiatives. Recognizing the impact of Covid-19, the Government reclassified ‘vulnerable young learners’ to include those with limited access to IT, bandwidth and space to study.
While bridging the digital divide with kit and socially distanced space within our ‘closed’ colleges, safeguarding our learners has become more challenging. Teachers have also engaged in new and insightful ways with learners unable to divulge domestic problems from home – where they may be locked down for months.
Improving Student Mental Wellbeing
NCG’s business is to deliver exceptional education, through a culture where mental health, wellbeing and resilience are high on the agenda; support and enhancement services are funded and accessible, open communication a given.
We must teach the soft skills that normally develop through interaction with others; clear communication, active listening, thinking creatively, solving problems, using criticism constructively and constantly adapting.
Alongside our NCG Guarantee (our future proofed skills enhancement offer), we are working to improve students’ mental wellbeing. This includes using Fika’s ‘mental fitness’ approach designed to enable students to flourish, reduce attrition, increase attainment, widen participation and improve employability. Created by psychologists they are delivered through student voice and relatable role models, mapped to curriculum and made highly accessible via a student app.
New careers (retirement age, 67!) will change direction many times, individuals must be focused and driven to succeed whatever their circumstances. Evolution of adaptive teaching and learning models has helped with this, but students need mental resilience to stay strong and clear-headed through this – and any - crisis. Colleges can build this fortitude through a variety of engagement techniques.
Students’ mental health in post-16 FE can be improved if they know that the ‘Time of the Pandemic’ has not closed down their options. NCG Colleges support learners to be ambitious and confident that the future includes them, and that they can shape it, as we recognise the critical role that FE has in post-pandemic recovery.
Mental health and well-being should sit at the top of the FE agenda, with colleges having properly resourced, embedded support systems underpinning the quality of the student experience, including monitoring the impact of poor mental health on progression and attainment.
Qualifications across post-18 further education should be modularised, incorporate soft skills training which in turn includes mental health awareness, fitness and resilience.
Communities of Practice within Colleges and College Groups should bring best practice to supporting student mental health and fitness and contributing to robust policy, in the same way that Safeguarding Councils oversee issues relating to student safety, in policy and practice.
By Liz Bromley, NCG
Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021
This article is from the new publication ‘Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021: issues for post-16 education, employment, the world of work and retirement’.
Some of the issues and concerns for mental health discussed existed prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 has caused additional pressures on young people and adults.
The authors make specific recommendations to support apprentices and students at colleges, university and in adult learning, as well as people in and out of work.
The important role of education, lifelong learning and good work in promoting mental wellbeing and reducing mental health problems is also addressed.
Published by the Campaign for Learning, it brings together sixteen specialists from mental health and post-16 education and employment to set out what needs to be done to prevent or limit a mental health crisis in 2021.