College return: Leaders call for further delay ahead of prime minister’s address


Colleges leaders have told FE Week they want a delay to face-to-face teaching for most students until at least February amid rising cases of Covid-19.

Central Bedfordshire College principal Ali Hadawi (pictured) says “certainty and clarity” is needed through longer term planning rather than “dribs and drabs” announcements that are currently being made weekly.

He believes colleges should only offer onsite learning to vulnerable students, children of key workers and learners who need to access practical equipment until next month.

Hadawi told FE Week this would give colleges the required time to implement a system of rapid mass testing that students and staff “could trust” rather than rushing it “on the hoof”.

“The mental and emotional load on staff, especially with the new strain of Covid-19 and on students is not helping,” he added.

Several other colleges leaders agreed with the need for a delay, but did not wish to be named.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association told FE Week that colleges should be given the freedom to choose whether or not to only offer remote education to most students until the February half term.

And in an email this afternoon to members seen by this newspaper, the Association of Colleges said they were lobbying the government to let colleges be “empowered to make their own decisions, in line with local circumstances and what is possible”, adding that the “micro-management from the centre, along with unrealistic timescales, do not help anyone but consistency of guidance and expectations would be helpful”.

It comes ahead of a televised address by prime minister Boris Johnson tonight at 8pm, where he is expected to make announcements about further national lockdown restrictions.

England’s colleges were given notice halfway through December that mass testing would be rolled out from this month, with the expectation staff and students will be able to get tested daily if they come into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19.

Around 1,500 armed forces personnel have been made available to support colleges delivering testing, albeit mostly remotely, and help the government plan that assistance.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans for a staggered return to face-to-face teaching in parliament on 30 December, wherein providers are open for onsite teaching to just vulnerable students and the children of critical workers this week.

Students preparing for exams in 2021 will study remotely from today and return to campus in the week beginning 11 January, with all other students learning online until they too return to campus the week beginning 18 January.

What is also troubling college leaders is the contingency framework introduced by the Department for Education for areas with high rates of Covid-19 cases and transmission.

In an area where the contingency framework is implemented, providers should only allow daily attendance to campuses to vulnerable students, the children of critical workers, priority learners such as those sitting exams or assessments this year, and those who are unable to learn remotely.

The Department for Education has said a review of which areas will be covered by the contingency framework will be made before the return of all students to face-to-face teaching, meaning colleges face not knowing how many students will be attending campuses days before they are due to arrive.

Hadawi said changing which colleges are included in the framework “days before the end of that period, is not helpful to colleges, or to staff or to students”.

A number of vocational exams including BTECs, which the Association of Colleges predicts will involve around 135,000 students, are going ahead this week but Hadawi says they should have been delayed.

Chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association Bill Watkin has said colleges should be allowed to stick to remote learning until the February half term, for all students except vulnerable groups, the children of key workers and January exam candidates.

Other college leaders have pleaded for government announcements to have greater clarity.

London South East Colleges group principal Sam Parrett said clarity was “urgently” needed, as the decision to keep colleges closed to most students until 18 January “has caused a great deal of confusion among students and parents, which will undoubtedly result in poor attendance” at BTEC and vocational exams.

Bedford College Group chief executive Ian Pryce, told FE Week the rapid escalation of Covid cases suggests a “rethink is now due”, argued government announcements have not been clear for colleges, yet timing was more important, as: “We know where infection rates are heading so there is no excuse for delaying decisions, giving us time to plan.”

East Coast College chief executive Stuart Rimmer meanwhile said the “chaotic start” to the new year has been “challenging and fully unavoidable” and that early and “definitive” decision making by government must now cover a period beyond 18 January.

“Colleges feel we are entering a period of higher risk with no safety net and limited ‘call centre based’ support,” he added. “Colleges may be best starting to make independent, autonomous decisions based on safety, local knowledge and student need if the department cannot get their act together rapidly to cover the period to half term.”

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