The apprenticeships and skills minister explains her gratitude and optimism for the sector in face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This country is currently waging its biggest peacetime battle in a generation. These are unprecedented times; as we continue to combat the global coronavirus outbreak, normal life has been effectively suspended, and I know everyone is doing their individual bit to halt the spread of this disease, protect our NHS and help save lives.

FE workers have been on the frontline of this national effort. I know the past few weeks have been incredibly disruptive and difficult for everyone, with businesses, schools, colleges and other providers closing their doors and Brits collectively hunkering down in their homes to stop the virus from spreading. Throughout that time, the sector has shown its characteristic tirelessness and patience as it continues to support staff, students and the wider community.

For that, I want to thank you all. We’re in uncharted territory, but I feel a surge of optimism whenever I look at your collective determination to keep calm and carry on providing education, training and support to learners wherever you can.

I’ve seen your incredible British spirit in action across the country, with countless FE providers stepping up to make sure their students can continue their studies and help their communities. Catering students have been donating to their local food banks, college staff have delivered biscuits to NHS workers, and colleges and training providers have offered support to local schools to help look after the children of key workers. As we adjust to a radically new way of working, I’ve heard some great examples from our Principals Reference Group of FE colleges leading the way in offering online support.

People are pulling together – and the government is behind you every step of the way. We’ve taken unprecedented steps to support individuals and businesses affected by coronavirus. That includes paying up to 80 per cent of people’s wages, deferring £30 billion of taxes until the end of the financial year, lending unlimited sums of money interest-free for 12 months, and setting up a new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. 

While some areas of life are unfortunately on hold, we’re working hard at the department to provide you all with as much tailored practical support as possible. We want as many apprentices as possible to continue and complete their training if they can, for example. So, to support both those apprentices and their providers, we’ve offered certain flexibilities over the coming weeks, such as permitting distance learning wherever possible, adapting end-point assessments and supporting breaks in learning for cases where coronavirus has caused disruption.  

At the same time, I’ve written two letters to the sector this week providing important details about the guidance we have published on maintaining further education provision. Those guidelines are available on GOV.UK, and we will be updating them regularly.  

I’ve also been working closely with a range of sector representatives and will continue to do so to ensure that I understand the support you need. 

We are continuing to monitor the situation and where further action is needed, we will take it. I know, for instance, that we still need to provide a firm approach in place for how vocational and technical qualifications will be assessed and awarded. We are working closely with Ofqual to urgently agree an appropriate way forward as soon as possible. 

We will continue to post updates on GOV.UK, so please check back in regularly for the latest information.  

As the prime minister said in his historic address to the nation a week ago, we will beat this coronavirus by working together.  

In my sixth week in the job, I had hoped to be out around the country seeing FE facilities, and meeting apprentices and learners. I look forward to meeting you once the country is through this time. I have no doubt that when that point comes, further education colleges and other providers will be even more essential to this country’s future as we rebuild our economy.