There’s a new breed of college in town, as we learn to adapt

28 Apr 2020, 6:01

The pandemic is forcing us to adopt new ways of working, and if we remain flexible, we have much to learn from the emergency procedures we have had to put in place, writes Paul Phillips.

A great tidal wave of change is leaving no part of our sector untouched, and those who are found to be too unyielding will snap. Like so many reeds in its path, the key to success is flexibility. For example, I always thought I was an accessible principal, but my newly acquired skills in digital communication have opened up new avenues.

Meanwhile, my staff have gone above and beyond looking for new openings every time a door closes.

Life’s entrepreneurs are emerging from all areas of the college, and the best testament to that is that learners from local academies want to join our online provision.

Weston College is relatively unique in its composition, so we spin a lot of plates. Frankly, it makes life difficult from a training offer perspective, but it is a good insurance if one plate breaks, which is sadly inevitable.

Our planning uses a multifactorial set of indices, including an almost pick-and-mix approach for learners and employers. That’s why, on top of transforming and sustaining our provision, we are also able to deliver vital training and resources to help the NHS, and why many of our staff and learners (many of them young apprentices) are able to be on the frontline delivering desperately needed health and social care support.

As a sector, we are more than used to managing crises

The question on everyone’s minds is what we’re going to do when we reopen. We are already on to that, and we have gone back to grassroots to plan. There is inevitable change ahead, and while the current period is no walk in the park, the near future will not be a time for the fainthearted.

Before my career in colleges, I ran hotels, NHS research and businesses, and I have learned that planning strategically is always about starting with a blank sheet of paper, analysing the benchmark issues and making your desired destination explicit. For now, planning through the impacts of Covid-19 is more reminiscent of those cookery programmes where you are given a couple of ingredients and asked to concoct something special in record time. But the stakes are high, and we shouldn’t underestimate the mental health impacts, both of our immediate situation and as we return and readapt to a new era for FE.

As a sector, we are more than used to managing crises, delivering against all odds and taking calculated risks. That’s why I am sure we will survive this.

But Covid-19 is not an excuse for finding ourselves in a difficult situation: it is the catalyst for change. Of course, there will be a tendency to blame the pandemic for not achieving some targets.

For example, I don’t think we will hit target on 16-to-19 this year, simply because our NEET and traineeship provision has been hit.

But equally, our adult provision is doing very well out of the expansion of distance learning, and we’ve already noticed healthy green shoots of success in our digital mindshift. Moreover, recognition of the potential of a new digital college is impacting other key issues: minimising bureaucracy, producing succinct remote solutions for teaching and learning, and a more in-depth questioning of work-life balance.

Could this lateral thinking also engender change with funding and quality regimes?

When I first came to the college, self-belief was at a low ebb. A few years later, one of my team commented that I had instituted change by “dragging them into a new era”. This time, all together, we are riding a tsunami of change. Of course there is trepidation and excitement in response, but if you take the time to notice it, a lot of creativity too.

When the wave rolls back, we will find there’s a whole new breed of digital college in town – more flexible and more robust, more community-centred and more self-assured. Because nothing, least of all a virus, should threaten our responsibility to deliver outstanding teaching and learning.

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