inTuition taster: Rising to the challenge

Lockdown presented huge challenges to education providers up and down the country. As well as rapidly switching to online learning, many also were keen to help out in their local communities, writes Jo Faragher.

As if coping with the sudden transition to virtual learning wasn’t enough to keep learning providers busy during the Covid-19 lockdown, many also supported their community. Whether it was offering up college facilities to produce vital personal protective equipment (PPE) or distributing food, many found a heightened sense of purpose within their local area. 

Learning Curve Group, for example, donated £20,000 to an emergency Covid-19 fund to support community groups. “One of our business values is to ‘do the right thing’ and I don’t think we could go back to our colleagues and, most importantly, our learners authentically without doing everything we could to help as many people as we could throughout the pandemic,” says CEO Brenda McLeish. 

We profile the efforts of several organisations, which have benefited not just the communities themselves but boosted engagement among staff and students.

1. Gateshead college 

‘As far as nursing training goes, this is possibly the best introduction anyone could have’

Facing the loss of classroom and industry placements due to the Covid-19 lockdown, students at Gateshead College managed to get some first-hand work experience they had not expected. Eighty-eight health and social care students from the college spent 12 weeks attending crisis care briefings and working on critical-care coronavirus hospital wards or in local care homes. 

“While the college switched to a 100 per cent virtual working environment following government closures, one of the biggest challenges we faced was ensuring practical-led courses were still given adequate hands-on support throughout lockdown,” says Chris Toon, deputy principal. 

“For our health and social care students and apprentices, Covid-19 provided the opportunity to step up and take on new responsibilities. Many of our students have been reassigned to specific Covid-19 care roles where they’ve been able to put everything they’ve learnt on their course into practice, gaining valuable on-the-job experience.”

One student, Sophie Graham, is due to start a nursing science degree at Northumbria University, and was redeployed to the frontline to work in critical care on the coronavirus wards. “As far as nursing training goes, this is possibly the best introduction anyone could have, it’s a massive learning experience,” she says. Her studies on how humans battle disease helped her understand the decisions being made around treatment for coronavirus patients. She also gained a more in-depth knowledge of infection control and using PPE. 

Staff at the college have also done their bit for the community, making knitted hearts for patients receiving treatment at Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital. 

The college’s ‘knit and natter’ group knitted hearts in pairs to help those who can’t be with their loved ones in hospital. One knitted heart stays with the patient and the other with family. “Because of social distancing measures, we were unable to meet so I came up with an idea of knitting together virtually,” says digital innovation and IT manager Helen Richardson. “We just had to get involved and give a little something to those in need during these uncertain times.”

2. Barnsley College

‘We have been an anchor institution during a difficult period’

Barnsley College was one of many institutions that redirected its resources to help out during the pandemic. Working in conjunction with local businesses, the Barnsley Digital Media Centre and the local library, they used cutting and 3D printing equipment from the art, design and fashion department to make an initial batch of 2,500 visors for Barnsley Hospital, donating money for the materials for a further 1,000 to be made. It was a collaborative effort, with a local web design business developing a visor design and delivering a prototype for the hospital to approve. 

This was just one of a number of projects the college was involved in at the height of the pandemic. College tutor Sarah White established a network called ‘For the Love of Scrubs’, which provided over 100 sets of protective equipment for health and care workers, with volunteers buying their own fabric or donating to support, as well as supporting distribution. Meanwhile a cook in the college’s catering services department, Daniel Lambert, was busy in the kitchen at Barnsley Hospital helping to prepare meals for NHS staff working on the Covid-19 wards. 

Other initiatives have included donating PPE to the hospital as well as chemo suits, protective glasses and gloves. Assistant principal Liz Burkey volunteered with a food bank in Sheffield while the catering department donated soft drinks, crisps and confectionery to the cause. Construction technician Arran McCallum, meanwhile, spent a week at the London NHS Nightingale hospital as a St John Ambulance volunteer. 

Yiannis Koursis, principal and CEO at the college, says he is very proud of the many ways in which staff and students have contributed. “It has enhanced our connection with the local community – we have been an anchor institution during a difficult period,” he says. 

3. Local authorities in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire 

‘We’ve got parents onboard who may have felt uncomfortable accessing education in the past’

Pat Carrington, principal of City College Peterborough and assistant director for employment and skills for Peterborough and Cambridgeshire City Councils, needed to keep facilities open when lockdown restrictions were enforced, but also stepped up to respond to the crisis demands of the local authority. 

She says: “We had to stay open as we have vulnerable young people who access our services, as well as key workers’ children and adult social care centres. The buildings were open so we thought what else can we do for the local community?” The colleges and centres received a weekly delivery of food from the charity FareShare but had no students to feed, so put together a team of catering, facilities and teaching staff to produce hot meals for vulnerable residents or those who would normally have had free school meals. 

They also provided a ‘meals on wheels’ service for a local housing association where some residents had not qualified for government support but were unable to secure online supermarket deliveries. “The first time we did it we cooked 20 meals,” says Carrington. “But we soon became more efficient and cooked 200 a day. We worked with another charity to deliver packed lunches to local homeless people who had been put into hotels.” 

Peterborough and Cambridgeshire library services created a website for people who were shielding to access learning and reading resources to keep them occupied. Some college staff even added craft or gardening videos, and the site will remain up once the pandemic has passed. Staff were also involved in assembling craft packs for families and scrub bags for NHS and care workers. 

Aside from the immediate benefits for vulnerable residents, the activities the colleges have been involved in have provided some positive publicity. “This puts us on the radar of some of the most vulnerable families, and we’ve got parents onboard who may have felt uncomfortable accessing education in the past,” she adds. “We’re using our civic role to bust the myth that ‘education is not for me’.”

It’s boosted staff engagement, too. “Everyone wanted to do their bit and there was a camaraderie of people wanting to work together to support each other,” says Carrington. “It’s also built bridges between departments and work areas, giving a deeper understanding of how we can work collaboratively.” 

4. Hertfordshire Adult and Family Learning Service 

‘One learner described learning to make these as one of the blessings of lockdown’

While hundreds of small firms and independent makers were stitching together masks for health and care workers during the pandemic, volunteers in Hertfordshire’s Adult and Family Learning Service (HAFLS) saw a gap in the market for ear-protectors. 

“These are something you can wear at the back of your head with a button to attach a mask to, to stop your ears getting sore from wearing a mask all day,” explains Wendy Nurse, marketing and outreach manager. Learners and staff alike jumped at the opportunity and started producing the protectors and sending them out free of charge.

But there was an additional benefit, adds Nurse: “One learner described learning to make these as one of the blessings of lockdown, while it has expanded people’s technical and digital skills. They’re not just learning how to sew, but how to use online meeting tools such as MS Teams.” 

HAFLS brings together a number of different services, and lockdown really brought them together to support the community. The Building Better Opportunities group, which supports employability in the community, set up a Zooming cafe so its users could enjoy a quiz or virtual coffee morning. 

“A lot of people come to their courses for the social aspect, so this had a huge impact,” says Nurse. One of the organisers even received a certificate from the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire for being a ‘hero of Hertfordshire’. Additional community courses, such as e-safety for children, virtual interviewing and life after lockdown have been oversubscribed.

The impact has been so positive that HAFLS hopes to expand the number of virtual courses and services it offers after the pandemic subsides. Staff have expanded their own digital knowledge and now feel more comfortable running courses online. “We won’t go backwards, this is our chance to offer more support to more people, and this will filter across all of our partnerships,” adds Nurse. 

5. South Devon College

‘We donated vans full of food, packaging up to 800 meals a week to support children’

Students and staff at South Devon College have rolled their sleeves up ever since coronavirus began to impact the community, producing PPE for local health services and using 3D printers to produce visors. The college developed an open-source design that could be replicated by businesses and other colleges across the country. 

One of the biggest ways the college helped out was working in partnership with RE4orm, a community interest company based in Torbay that looks after vulnerable children and families. “We run our catering in-house and knew this would be closed, so looked into how we could donate,” says principal Laurence Frewin. “We donated vans full of food, packaging up to 800 meals a week to support children, some of them our own learners.” Students and staff volunteered with deliveries. 

The college’s virtual art exhibition – where students showcased their end-of-year work online – also had an impact on the wider community. “It brought together people from all over the world; people were connecting remotely and we were doing something differently,” he adds. 

Additionally, performing arts students have been raising awareness of a struggling local theatre in Paignton, performing poetry on stage and keeping it at the forefront of the community. The college has also worked with local firms to help them understand the government’s furlough scheme and to ensure that apprentices were supporting employers while they were not able to physically attend college. 

“There were a number of people who didn’t know what the college did or what we can offer,” says Frewin. “We’re not just here to provide education, we have a bigger part to play. This has been a good way to prove that.” 

Jo Faragher is a freelance journalist and former editor of Tes magazine

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