Simon Pirotte, CEO and Principal at Bridgend College and CCR Economic Growth Partnership Board Member
“Being positive in a negative situation is not naïve… it’s leadership.” Ralph Marston
Covid-19 has presented us all with many challenges but the Welsh further education (FE) sector has shown its ability to react and adapt quickly and with great flexibility during the current crisis. The pandemic is an awful situation and has cost precious lives but as is always the case in dreadful circumstances, human beings demonstrate their resilience and creativity.
Often, there’s a misunderstanding about what we do as FE colleges. The general public knows what we mean by school or university but FE is less understood, and perhaps that is because we provide such a wide range of educational opportunities to a broad range of learners, from 14-16 year olds following a junior apprenticeship programme to students studying at postgraduate level. A surprising statistic is that more than half of Wales’ post-16 learners are taught in our 13 FE colleges.
The sector has talked a lot over recent years about moving towards more blended learning with more digital delivery, and we have made incremental shifts in that direction. But within a few days this March, we transformed ourselves. Every college has moved to some form of online delivery in such a short space of time. I don’t think we could have achieved this at the same pace and with the same sense of urgency pre Covid-19. It’s been really quite remarkable to see the innovation and resilience in the FE sector’s staff as they have grappled with a new way of working.
Just like in other sectors, the pandemic has us all thinking about how we operate and how we can do things differently. Recently, for example, we had our first virtual open day at Bridgend College. The technology worked really well with great levels of engagement from the public and prospective students, and lots of positive feedback. When we return to the ‘new normal’, will we go back to the old ways of working with the traditional style of an open day? Or a more blended approach using the best of the traditional and the new? We are all asking these kinds of questions across all our operations.
At Bridgend College, like many organisations, we’ve been doing a lot of work around sustainability. We are committed to making significant reductions to our carbon footprint. We are now questioning those ‘essential’ face to face meetings. Do we all need to travel those distances to a central venue? Across the world we are seeing the reduction in carbon emissions. I usually spend a minimum of 10 hours a week travelling to and from work in the car. Not only am I more productive now, but I’m doing my bit to reduce carbon emissions. Multiply that by 700 staff at the College and that is a significant contribution.
So there are certainly lessons to be learnt from this experience, and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of them going into the future. There are some things that work very well digitally and some that work less well; and we need to take that lesson forward in our approach to blended learning. Some learners are more engaged digitally than face to face because that’s their preferred learning style, and others less so; we’ve seen some hard to reach learners that are engaging much more via digital platforms.
Currently, one of the biggest challenges is around assessment of qualifications. There’s been a lot of talk in the media about how GCSE and A-level students will receive estimated grades because they’re not able to sit their exams this summer. Less noticed, but just as important, is what happens to those learners taking vocational qualifications or following apprenticeship programmes. For example, the economy will need plumbers as we climb out of recession, but would you want a plumber to service your boiler if no-one had ensured s/he was occupationally competent to do it? You can’t calculate a grade for that. So we are grappling with this issue, and how we might allow small groups of learners to return to complete practical assessments while ensuring the health and safety of both staff and learners.
This in turn will have an impact on incoming learners next academic year, as it will take longer to complete these assessments for current learners as we follow medical advice with smaller group sizes. This will put a huge strain on resources and budgets. Welsh Government has been extremely supportive of the sector, but as we all know there will be huge fiscal challenges moving forward.
At time of writing, there are more questions than answers. But the can do FE sector will rise to the challenge. Positive and creative leadership is required at all levels of our organisations and you may rest assured that our staff will approach these challenges with the dedication, commitment and flexibility that they showed at the beginning of the crisis.
As Charles Swindoll said:
“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”