Virtual work placements, redesigned curriculums for practical courses and borrowing prosthetic limbs are among the creative adjustments made by FE providers to continue education in the midst of a pandemic, Ofsted has found.

The inspectorate this week published letters from the first ten “interim visits” of colleges and training providers that are taking place this autumn ahead of the watchdog’s return to normal inspections, currently set for January.

The five-page letters include inspectors’ findings from interviews with both leaders and learners about the provider’s response to Covid-19, but do not include a judgment grade.

Mental health has reportedly deteriorated among young people during lockdown, according to various pieces of research conducted across the country, and this was a key area of focus found by Ofsted among the ten providers.

Inspectors said this was a “high priority” at Blackpool and the Fylde College, for example, which introduced “online social time” so that students and staff do not suffer from social isolation, while counselling support was increased at Birmingham Metropolitan College.

Private provider Intuitions Limited, based in north Yorkshire, conducted “wellbeing meetings in between reviews to identify those who were most vulnerable in terms of mental health, and they offered support by telephone”. Meanwhile, staff at London-based independent specialist college The Autism Project – CareTrade organised a “variety of online wellbeing support for learners who struggle with being stuck at home” such as “quizzes and social gatherings via computers or mobile phones”.

In terms of the curriculum, Ofsted found leaders at most providers had modified sequencing due to restrictions, such as by reordering practical elements to be taken at the end of a course in anticipation for local lockdowns where theory can be delivered online.

At Blackburn College, which this week moved into tier three (the top level of England’s Covid restrictions), inspectors said: “In anticipation of further local restrictions, managers and teachers have amended the sequencing of the curriculum to ensure that the practical skills are delivered early in the programme.

“This is as a result of lessons learned during the summer term Covid-19 restrictions, where learners studying sports were unable to complete their practical assessments in sports halls and gyms because they were closed.”

Ofsted said the college is “confident” that it has a “variety of flexible approaches” to enable it to continue to deliver practical curriculums. For example, teachers have provided prosthetic limbs for beauty therapy learners so that they can practise manicures and pedicures at home.

Work placements have also been heavily impacted by the pandemic, with many sectors, particularly health and social care, not allowing visitors except their own employees.

To tackle this issue, a number of the providers that Ofsted visited introduced virtual placements.

For example, managers and staff at WS Training Ltd, a Suffolk-based independent training provider, explained how they had been “running an online shop, rather than a physical one”.

At Catch 22 Charity Limited, a provider based in London, staff now “make use of a virtual work experience arrangement provided by an employment agency, where students complete work-related tasks that they can do from home”.

At The Autism Project – CareTrade, where a “high proportion” of learners’ time is normally spent on work placements at local hospitals, leaders and staff have “adapted the curriculum by adding lessons in business enterprise, through which learners develop their ability to work in a team and use their knowledge of English and mathematics”.

Ofsted also quizzed the providers on their work to keep students safe online following the switch to remote delivery.

All ten providers were praised for their work in this area, with inspectors finding bolstered training for staff and a range of safety software being introduced to protect learners from online fraud, cyber bullying and extremism.

Inspectors found that Beacon Education Partnership Limited, a private provider in London, had introduced a new video conferencing package which has “improved safeguarding” by, for example, only allowing learners to access online lessons “with an identification code for the session”.

At Catch 22, leaders said “organisations, such as Social Switch, were useful in training teachers, trainers and students how to share text and images safely when learning through digital media”.

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