Outreach community work, always a cornerstone of one Essex adult education provider, came to the fore during the pandemic, writes Tony Gallagher

Southend Adult and Community College (SACC) has long been well-rooted in its community. Managers have been determined and outward-looking in ensuring that the Essex college attracts and retains vulnerable learners and the make-up of the student body is a good testament to the college’s inclusive mission, spanning ethnicity, class and cultures.

Ros Parker, the principal, has concentrated on skills development and close ties with employers. Senior officers of the sponsoring Southend Borough Council have been quick to spot the potential of the college in furthering the council’s strategies in areas such as welfare, housing and employment.

But that was before Covid-19. The first concern after lockdown was to ensure students continued to participate in learning. True to its community- ethos, managers recognised the social dimension, structure and security that attending college brought to the lives of learners. Older learners had flourished within their art lessons, often forming wider social networks. Young people struggling with mainstream education patently benefited from the inclusive culture. The need to ensure that learners maintained a personal link with tutors and peers was therefore paramount.

In common with many other FE institutions, managers introduced online learning. Existing technology was adapted and new technology and pedagogy introduced. Tutors rose to the challenge and a high proportion of learners continued with their studies remotely. In truth, this level of continued engagement was higher than managers could have anticipated.

Far less commonly, managers moved overnight to support the welfare and well-being of the Southend community and, in some instances, put food on the plates of vulnerable local people. Outreach community work has always been a cornerstone of SACC. Its relationships with partner voluntary organisations and charities enjoy a good reputation.

As the pandemic accelerated, it was clear to Ros Parker that the college was well-positioned to respond to immediate local needs, above and beyond the conventional. She and her senior leaders recognised that the college’s assets included ancillary, catering and support staff who knew their communities well. It also had kitchens and stocks of food.

Overnight, college staff arranged to put food on the plates of vulnerable families, provided 140 meals daily for homeless people and helped to respond to the personal safety problems faced by sex workers in the town. This response illustrated well a community college’s wider mission, the motivation of managers and arguably, a moral imperative.

Parker says that in a time when 8.9 million jobs have been furloughed, adult education providers could be upskilling and retraining these adults remotely and in college to supplement online learning.

“There has been a significant increase in levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness during the pandemic impacting on adult’s and young people’s mental health.

“However, no one is talking about adults returning to learning, which is incredible when our society needs us to provide that lifeline.

“I could take out space in the shopping centre, I could even take my construction students to the park to build a social distance resting station, but I can’t have them back in college.

“We are ready, we are open and safe, we just want to be recognised for the massive positive contribution we can make to economic recovery by allowing us to partially open for adults in the same way we are for young people.”

Many recipients of SACC’s support were not, and will not, be registered as learners, but benefit they did. Were college managers’ actions in deploying SACC’s – the community’s – resources to support the well-being of Southend residents a blip, or an altruistic response from a bighearted team of educators?

Given the necessary actions SACC took in relation to the broader welfare, health and fortunes of the community, what then for established accountability and standards frameworks…and how are locally determined social actions such as these given credit?