Virtual visits during lockdown have revealed many excellent practices to tackle Covid-19 in colleges, writes Gillian Keegan

There has never been a better time to applaud the extraordinary efforts of everyone who works in the FE sector.

For colleges and FE providers, this term has presented many challenges, but what is even more remarkable are the great successes that they have achieved.

Thanks to the huge amount of work accomplished by staff, students returned on-site in September to a “new normal”. Existing students were supported in their return to studies and new students were welcomed onto courses, ensuring valuable face-to-face time with their tutors and peers.

All the while,  huge efforts were made to ensure they and staff were as safe as possible.

We have, of course, had a role to play to support providers in making sure no student falls behind.

We provided a one-off, ring-fenced grant of up to £96 million for colleges, sixth forms and all 16-19 providers to offer small group tutoring activities for disadvantaged students whose studies had been disrupted.

I know how much this funding was needed and I was pleased to read that colleges had told FE Week that the funding had been spent on hiring extra pastoral and study staff, and in a couple of cases on hiring young people either about to start, or just graduating from, university –  to help make the people delivering this tuition more relatable for students.

To make sure this support continues, we are introducing a new Covid Workforce Fund for further education and sixth form colleges with high staff absences, that are also facing significant financial pressures, to help them stay open.

I know how much this funding was needed

Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure of virtually visiting many providers around the country and witnessed this excellent work first-hand.

I would like to shine a light on Newcastle Sixth Form College (NSFC), who rolled out a mass testing pilot and transformed their central computer lab into a fit for purpose testing site.

NSFC, with the help of military personnel, ran three days of routine testing last week, testing over 900 staff and students. Two positive cases were confirmed, and dealt with swiftly – the positive students being removed from class and sent home for self-isolation.

Those that were in close contact with the positive students were tested regularly to check they weren’t infected and this meant that they could continue with their studies and didn’t need to self-isolate.

I’m delighted to hear the experience has been highly rewarding for the college, military staff and the students, who shared how impactful the work felt.

They have been particularly exceptional – modelling data scenarios, providing feedback and more – with regards helping others do the same. We cannot thank them enough.

Even in the face of the challenges Covid-19 has brought, something I am particularly excited about has been the launch of the first three T Levels – Design, Surveying and Planning for Construction, Digital Production, Design and Development, and Education and Childcare – with seven more to come next year.

On my visits – both in person and virtual – to T Level providers since September, I have met students from all three programmes and have been blown away by the staff and students’ enthusiasm for what the T Level offers and how it will help them get ahead in their careers.

One reaction that has stuck with me was a student from Thorpe St Andrew School’s reply to whether the government had “got T levels right”. The student reacted with a resounding: “100 per cent”.

Another said that the prospectus had seemed “too good to be true”, but that the course was proving to be even better than he’d imagined.

I want to congratulate Thorpe St Andrew School and all the providers who are pioneering the new qualifications, and especially for the work that went into preparing for the launch over the summer.

As you all know by now, we will soon be publishing our FE White Paper. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the need for a more flexible, responsive FE system – and as we deal with its impact, improving the skills of people across the country will be critical for our future success. 

Our education reforms will play a huge part in ensuring that we build back better with a world-leading FE system, by supporting learners to progress into prestigious careers, and delivering the skills that employers and the economy need to thrive.

As we reflect on the previous term and look ahead to the New Year, I want to thank you all for your continued leadership and hard work throughout the pandemic to ensure all students get the education they deserve.

Here’s to 2021, and I look forward to hearing of more success for the FE sector.