The rapid transformation of our colleges is a testament to their strengths and any ‘new normal’ must reflect FE’s true value, writes one principal

Nothing that follows is unique to our college so, with the editor’s permission, I anonymise it and hope it goes some way to describing what our remarkable FE sector as a whole is doing in these extraordinary times.

Like all colleges we put together, at great speed, a strategic, coordinated and unprecedented response to COVID-19. Daily (at times it has seemed hourly) we review it, measuring its operational effectiveness, and making necessary adjustments. Like every FE provider, we then adapt what we do further on the basis of emerging advice from government departments and funding agencies.

There will be huge challenges beyond the present ones

More important still, however, has been the practical advice from fellow colleges based on their real frontline experience and with that collaborative networking ethos of the sector at its best. The Association of Colleges has proved its value both as the means of collecting and distributing core information and advice from the national agencies and as an exchange forum for ensuring that no one across 250 FE providers wastes time reinventing wheels or making a case as a lone voice.

College teaching and support staff across the UK will all have been part of setting up IT infrastructure and communications, within a week, to enable online delivery of teaching, learning and support. In our case this was to 6,500 full-time students alone and meant ensuring there was effective remote working for 1,500 members of staff. Teaching teams produced outstanding online learning materials to deliver digital lessons over the same timescale.

In our first full week of operation in this new normal, more than 7,000 online lessons and meetings were successfully delivered. Student levels of ‘attendance’ and participation have been remarkable. Students and staff are being supported through an online information hub with support for remote learning, resources to help manage mental and physical health during social distancing, and advice about what the latest government information on exams and qualifications means in practical terms for students anxious to know how their futures are going to be affected . The scale and complexity of bespoke support provided for SEN and EHCP students is something every college could write volumes on – and perhaps will when time allows, so that this crucial and under-recognised area of our work is celebrated.

Like all colleges who offer prospective students a half hour interview, we have switched entirely to phone or video interviews. Like so many in FE we are supporting the local frontline NHS workers with meals, accommodation, parking and PPE provision, including digital printing of essential kit. We know we are just one of many colleges not waiting for central support to provide what the most disadvantaged students need – including food – but getting on with providing it. The unreasonably technophobic have become acquiescent as Teams, Skype and Zoom come into their undeniable own. The bullishly technophile have, by and large, resisted the temptation to say ‘I told you so’ as we all just crack on with things. The sight of one technophobe colleague managing to appear on screen as if hanging upside down, bat-like, through a three-hour video meeting is an enduring image. No one said anything.

There is a risk that this highlighting of FE’s collective endeavours in the crisis appears to make light of the great anxieties and tensions that so many of its stakeholders are experiencing – whether about future and present finances, their own safety and that of their families, the wellbeing of learners including some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, the national and local economic and employment prospects after the immediate restrictions have been lifted. That is not the intention at all. There will be huge challenges beyond the present ones, challenges in which the need for collaboration and a collective approach across FE colleges will be just as important as it is now, arguably more so. The biggest challenge will perhaps be to forge another, post-crisis, long-term new normal for colleges. We cannot go back to that ‘normal’ of the last decade; we have to ensure that chronic disinvestment in FE – and therefore in skills, in productivity, in our collective and in individual life chances – is never again thought socially or economically or morally acceptable.

But that’s all stuff for another day and another article. For now, as everyone reading this knows, for FE there is more immediate and vital work to be done.