From next Monday, colleges and providers will have the flexibility to offer more students face-to-face learning, explains Gillian Keegan

Last month I virtually visited Weston College to meet students and staff. It was another incredible insight into how a college has been able to successfully move its learning and resources online at speed, with an impressive 88 per cent overall remote lesson attendance.

I know, from speaking with many across the sector, that FE is leading the way in digital delivery of education. Survey results from the Association of Colleges found that 70 per cent of providers have scheduled online lessons for most of their subjects and that 95 per cent of providers reported that all, or the majority, of their students are continuing their learning remotely.

As great as these efforts have been, we all know there is no substitute for being back in a classroom or workshop, particularly where that enables access to specialist facilities. That’s why we are giving colleges and providers the flexibility to offer a wider number of students and apprentices some face-toface support to supplement their remote learning from June 15.

This initially should focus on those aged 16-19-years-old, who are in the first year of a two-year study programme. We know that colleges and training providers are best placed to know the needs of their students, which is why we have given them the flexibility to prioritise who can attend based on who will benefit from it the most.

To help reduce the transmission risk, we are asking providers to limit the number of learners attending at any one time to no more than a quarter of that group. We have published a checklist, which sets out steps to ensure risks are minimised, including enhanced hygiene care, limiting movements around exit and entry points and staggered start and end times, to make sure staff and students are safe.

Our guidance also makes clear that as part of their planning, all providers should carry out a risk assessment to identify any issues associated with coronavirus, so that sensible measures can be put in place.

I know a great deal of you are already putting these plans in place, including Sunderland College. Their overall remote attendance has been exceptionally high, at 93 per cent and they are now preparing for the increase in classroom contact. They are providing dedicated support for vulnerable learners and inviting year 11 pupils in feeder schools to join virtual classes at the college to help with the transition. They plan to flex their college week, to provide catch-up support for learners who need it most, with dedicated coaches for those at risk of dropping out.

The TEC Partnership (formerly Grimsby Institute Group) has continued to offer high standards of education throughout lockdown with an amazing 89 per cent remote attendance rate and has also been considering re-opening since the very beginning. The partnership has worked out the maximum number of students who need to be on site whilst achieving social distancing, started installing extra sanitisation in rooms and is identifying where one-way systems would be required. Although there will continue to be a blended approach – of online and face to face learning – reopening presents a huge opportunity for the TEC Partnership, and more importantly the students, who I am sure will benefit from the additional face-to-face engagement in a college setting.

The transition to our new normal will not be straightforward, and so we are starting cautiously, focussing on smaller groups of students, and asking providers to make plans now that will work for them. These are the first steps to providing greater flexibility and ensuring we have the right delivery that meets the needs of every learner. No student should be held back from progressing because of the coronavirus, so it is vital that plans are put in place so we can make sure that doesn’t happen.

As we start our phased reopening, I want to thank everyone for their continued support and hard work. I know you all have the best interest of your students at heart, so I’m urging you all to work with us, continue to show leadership and take that first step.