Lockdown letdown: Union slams decision not to close colleges

A teaching union has accused the government of putting staff and student safety “at risk” by keeping colleges open during November’s national lockdown and called for campuses to close “wherever possible”.

But one principal has defended Whitehall’s decision, claiming that colleges have now been made Covid-secure and the emotional impact of isolation is more profound than the virus.

On Thursday, the Department for Education published updated guidance for delivering FE on the eve of the new month-long national restrictions that will be in place from November 5 until December 2.

The guidance told colleges and training providers to continue to deliver “the majority of education on site” for 16-to-19-year-olds during the lockdown unless they have had written public health advice to move some of this age group to remote teaching, in which case the department should be informed.

For adults, the DfE has told providers to “consider moving to online teaching where possible to do so while still achieving educational objectives”. But, where adult education needs to continue on site to enable access to equipment, or where students cannot access remote delivery, this “can continue in a Covid-secure way”.

The University and College Union hit out at the guidance, saying that the 16-to-19 age group has been demonstrated to be “as, if not more” likely to get infected by Covid-19 as other adults and should be “afforded the same protection”.

“UCU is now calling for all course delivery for young adults in further education to be moved online wherever possible during the lockdown in England,” the union’s head of further education Andrew Harden told FE Week.

“This has not been an easy decision to take but the health and safety of students and staff and their communities must come first.”

He also called on ministers to “match” the commitment of staff to their students by providing colleges with “the extra funding they need to create and resource Covid-safe spaces and extra support for those students who for whatever reason are unable to effectively continue their learning remotely”.

In an FE Week investigation in June, college leaders warned of spiralling Covid-19 safety costs – with many having to fork out hundreds of thousands of pounds on items such as personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser, signage, shields and temperature guns. The Association of Colleges previously called for a £70 million government fund to ease these budget pressures.

Responding to the UCU’s call for colleges to close during November, Ali Hadawi, the principal of Central Bedfordshire College, said it is “vital to strike a balance between the emotional wellbeing of staff and students and their safety in relation to Covid-19”.

“It is critically important to create a safe learning and working environment, which we have done by working collaboratively with staff and student groups,” he continued.

“However, the emotional impact of isolation on learners, especially young people and the most vulnerable, and staff, is more profound than the anxiety in relation to Covid-19. Evidence from learner and staff feedback, as well as their attendance and retention, supports this fact.”

AoC chief executive David Hughes said colleges are doing “all that they can” to protect staff and students and are “continuously monitoring and adapting to changes – often at speed, with no precedent, and at great cost”.

He concurred with Hadawi’s comments that it is “good for students’ mental health and for their social wellbeing” to continue learning on site.

Hughes added that the DfE’s guidance should give college leaders the “confidence that they are being trusted to make complex judgments and decisions that are best for their students and staff”.

The guidance also states that apprenticeships and other training in the workplace will “continue where those sectors remain open” but the DfE expects to see “particular impacts in hospitality and retail”.

It adds that face coverings must now be worn in the communal areas of secondary schools and FE providers in an extension of rules that will apply through the new lockdown.

Clinically extremely vulnerable young people, adults and staff have been advised not to attend college or their training provider while the national restrictions are in place.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “We must put the interests of our children and young people first, especially when the benefits of being in the classroom are clear.

“Education is a national priority and we cannot allow it to be disrupted again.”