Take the ‘opportunity’ to reopen from June, says skills minister

Colleges that refuse to begin face-to-face teaching with students before the next academic year will “lose an opportunity to start a journey that we need to go through” to recover from Covid-19, Gillian Keegan has warned.

The apprenticeships and skills minister believes the safety issues currently presented by the pandemic will still be there beyond September, and today urged college bosses to “show leadership” by taking these “painful steps” sooner rather than later.

She was addressing an FE Week webcast following guidance published last week by the Department for Education which said colleges and training providers could start their wider reopening from 1 June.

It came on the same day that a survey from this newspaper found a huge 94 per cent (32 out of 35) of college leaders said the DfE should leave it to them to decide who should come in for face-to-face contact when they reopen, and 71 per cent believe a significant number of students will refuse to attend next month.

Unions representing tens of thousands of college staff have also set out five “tests” they believe should be met before students return, and are advising them to continue working and studying from home if they can.

Asked during today’s webcast what she would say to a college principal who decides that all provision will be online-only until the 2020/21 academic year, the minister said: “I think they’d be losing an opportunity to start a journey that we need to go through.

“They need to do risk assessments, they need to look at the provision, the mix of cohort, the facilities, their buildings – all of those questions do not go away in September, so start now.

“Unless you start to assess the risks, you can’t come up with a plan to mitigate them. These are painful steps, the sooner you take the first one, the easier it is take the second one. We are having to show leadership and that is what is required in these cases.

“Leadership, by the way, that many others have done already. Think of our health service, think of our transport workers, the people who keep the lights on, the people who keep keeping us fed. They have all done this already. What we’re saying is, could we have some of the education sector join them as well in trying to get back to normal.”

Keegan added: “There is a counterfactual for everything and the counterfactual here is we stay at home. How long are we going to stay at home because all of those challenges will be there in July, they’ll be there in September and will probably be there a while after that.”

She described the reopening guidance from the of DfE as “baby steps” and reiterated that the department is giving the sector’s “brilliant” college leaders “flexibility” to decide exactly what face-to-face contact they supplement with online learning from June.

The minister pressed that “we have to start this journey” and cannot wait until the country has other safety measures such as a coronavirus vaccine, antibody test, or a track and trace system.

Keegan concluded that the FE sector has “exceeded expectations so far” in response to Covid-19 and the “fantastic” online delivery “will probably change aspects of how we deliver FE going forward”.