What's it like in colleges at the moment?

By Dr Anne Murdoch OBE, Senior Advisor, College Leadership, ASCL

The challenges faced by all those in education right now are immense. Schools and colleges have been working for months in an uncertain environment with no sign of any lessening of pressures to keep learners and staff safe, amid guidance from government to keep open, come what may, in many cases without extra financial support to cover the costs. 

For further education (FE) colleges, having suffered significant financial hardship from loss of apprenticeship and commercial income during the first lockdown, the situation now means keeping classes running,  organising resit exams for hundreds of students, ensuring learners who lost motivation during the initial lockdown are supported to catch up, organising extra transport for which there is no extra funding and keeping up regular face-to-face learning as well as developing infrastructure for improved blended learning - even before they provide the education and training which learners and employers signed up to! 

Colleges reflect the constituents of their local communities and for some, in high risk areas, keeping open during local lockdowns must feel very scary. With bubbles bursting as Covid cases increase and with the accumulative impact of local lockdowns on loss of income from commercial businesses and training for employment, the FE and skills sector has suffered more uncertainty than most. 

This piece, with the help of the ASCL FE Committee, looks at what it is like in colleges this term and what colleges still contend with. 

Good recruitment
Colleges teach over two million young people and adults each year. Leaders state that enrolments have been good this year, although no one is quite sure what impact disruption to learning will have on the motivation of learners to stay on course and achieve. Whilst in most cases, apprenticeship numbers have been negatively impacted by redundancy and furloughing, other enrolments in colleges, both FE and HE, are reported to be good. Generally, adult learner numbers are strong, even though older learners in colleges are more likely to be worried about getting coronavirus. T levels, introduced this year for the first time in a few colleges, have recruited reasonably well and the new Institutes of Technology have likewise started on a positive footing. 

Transport headaches
Getting younger students to college has been a bit of a headache for some colleges as more transport is needed at additional cost, although a few exceptions show how resourceful some local authorities have been in providing transport support. 

Impact of resits
Resits on an industrial scale, especially in English and maths GCSE, are impacting  on colleges as some cope with 500 or more learners resitting exams this autumn in all sorts of different venues and with a variety of distancing measures in place for them and their invigilators. 

The cost of Covid
The cost of keeping everyone safe in schools and colleges was the subject of a recent survey by ASCL. The survey found that some colleges are up to £300,000 or more out of pocket as they introduce more and more measures to keep everyone safe and as they develop new ways of learning, face-to-face and online. The increased cost of extra new kit and PPE has also been costly as government guidance discourages sharing of equipment in practical classes. 

Several college leaders anticipated local lockdowns during the autumn term and have already planned for a flexible programme. This is a sensible move. Colleges can be flexible as long as they meet funding guidelines and, in high risk areas where restrictions impact on college operations, flexibility in terms of teaching and learning approaches is key. 

Positive outlook
The FE and skills sector has experienced increasing hardship in recent months, but somehow remains resilient. I am always encouraged by the positive way in which college staff cope with any crisis that befalls them and I am increasingly proud of the whole education sector for the way in which leaders, their staff, and students have kept up their determination to do their best in what is undoubtedly a very difficult situation. 

Many colleges have suffered big finances losses but still they work on with a desire to do their utmost to support local employers and their communities, which have suffered more. They do all this without a clear understanding yet of what the government might have in store with the White Paper on FE promised for later this year. 

To my mind, colleges are doing a great job and I dearly hope the government recognises this in the White Paper.  

Share your experiences
Would you like to let us know about your experiences of the last few months? If you have any comments you are able to share on what it has been like for you and your colleagues, please email Anne Murdoch on

Dr Anne Murdoch OBE is Senior Advisor, College Leadership at ASCL. 
Posted: 19/10/2020 14:03:44