The need to act on government’s decision is tempered by concern for our students, writes college principal and the chair of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, Nick Burnham

On Wednesday night I watched the secretary of state announce the closure of schools and colleges and then emailed staff to say that Thursday would be our last day with our Year 13 students. During the day we had closed to Year 12 as our staff, slowly and reluctantly, started to self-isolate. To be honest I was relieved to make the decision and some of the pressure that had increased over the last 10 days was lifted. 

Along with many principals and heads across the country, I had wrestled with the desire to stay open and serve our students while knowing some vulnerable staff and students would not self-isolate independently without my acting and closing the college. I still need more clarity about which students are expected to attend on Monday before I can make plans for next week. Although dependants of key workers, some students are 17 or even 18 years old and may be better off at home than in college.

This morning started with worried Y13 students at reception at 7:45 asking about their exams and grades. I did my best to reassure them and said that the most sensible way forward would be to move to a system of teacher-awarded grades using the college’s past performance as a guide. ‘They will do the most sensible thing, won’t they?’ was the last question I dealt with rather less well than the others.

After a college leadership team briefing, we worked on finalising the list of vulnerable students including those with an EHCP and discussed support for our foundation learning students. As a post-16, predominantly A level provider, it was not usual for us to think in terms of providing supervision for students to help parents. We established there are likely to be few key workers among the parents of our foundation learning department and therefore concluded that on-site supervision was not required. 

So from tomorrow our support for all students begins. The college will be open, staffed by SLT and the estates team from 9:30 to 12:30 every weekday. Teaching and learning online begins on Monday morning for all students using Microsoft Teams and will be a mix of live sessions and pre-recorded or set work. All will follow the existing college timetable, hopefully motivated by the thought their teacher will have a significant input to their final grade. The college’s achievement tutors will work from home, regularly making contact with vulnerable students but also supporting all students through this difficult time. Counselling continues by Skype or other methods and our additional learning support department will be in regular contact with all EHCP students to check how they are adjusting to this new approach.

All day there has been an unusual sadness around the place as shocked students came to terms with leaving college before their time. Staff and students have shed tears and tried to make sense of things. The one silver lining has been the magnificent response of the college staff. One unexpected event ended the day poignantly for us all. Eileen, our receptionist of 28 years, had talked of retirement but not yet requested it. She realised that today was actually, unexpectedly, going to be her last day after all those years. We ended a sad day with staff outside the main entrance, appropriately socially distanced, applauding her on her way home.