Responding and adapting to Covid-19: a chief executive’s reflection

This is a guest post by Paul Cox, the Chief Executive at Eastleigh College. Paul also serves on a wide range of external educational and employer bodies, including the Hampshire Principals’ Group, and the Eastleigh Consortium Heads and Principals. Paul is also a co-opted governor at Solent University. During the Coronavirus pandemic Paul also chaired the JISC and Association of Colleges national ‘Shaping the Digital Future of FE and Skills’ research that was published in September 2020.

Paul attended the SPC ‘Recovery’ seminar in 2020 where he gave valuable feedback and suggestions on how the Further Education sector was responding to the Covid pandemic.  As a result,  Eastleigh College developed a commitment to students and employers and published the Eastleigh College Covid-19 ‘Bounce Back’ pledge in July last year. As such, we have invited him this month to reflect on the crisis now that the restrictions have been lifted. 

The content of this post is solely the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Southern Policy Centre.

Responding and adapting to Covid-19; a chief executive’s reflection

On February 11, 2020, we were contacted by local media with regards to how we were responding to the Coronavirus. This initial contact followed confirmation that a school in Southampton had shut for a deep clean, little did we know that this would start the 5 weeks and 6 day ‘clock’ before the first lock down and all our lives being turned upside down! This article seeks to share some reflections as to how Eastleigh College responded to the pandemic, and how we kept the needs of our learners, staff, and employer partners at the forefront of our collective efforts and focus.

We quickly recognised that the virus was going to have a major and sustained impact on the College. A dedicated leadership group for Covid was established to focus on the pandemic and to ensure that ‘normal’ routines could remain as uninterrupted as possible. The ‘Covid Leadership Group’ included all senior managers, and the leads for HR, marketing and communication, health and safety, and premises. The team has met every Wednesday since 11 February, at times even daily, and on January 4 the team even met at 2130 to provide clear communication to colleagues after the second lockdown was announced.

Reassuring our staff, learners and employer partners that their health, safety, and wellbeing was of the utmost of importance has of course been our main priority. Like businesses across the country, we adapted our premises, had strong signage and messaging in place, and been fully transparent with regards to sharing information about positive cases as they occurred. Learners have been able to feedback through their tutors, through their representatives, through social media and email. Staff have been able to feedback through formal and informal channels. The Covid Leadership Group has standing agenda items focused on feedback and wellbeing.

Throughout the pandemic we have tried to be as proactive as possible, for example, prior to the first lockdown we had a countdown plan to 23 March 2020 (a date we had estimated based on Chris Whitty’s briefings). Our countdown included home working risk assessments for all staff, staff training, ordering a substantial number of Chromebooks and increasing the concurrent capacity of our remote server. Since the first lockdown other examples include requiring everyone to wear face coverings prior to government guidance changing and remaining open for assessments during the second lockdown. At no time did we try to second guess the pandemic, we just hoped our ‘looking ahead’ would reassure learners and staff that we were not just reacting to every guidance change or news story. Whilst some decisions turned out to be sub-optimal, I think learners and staff valued our proactive efforts.

We’ve tried to over-communicate internally and externally. Like others in our sector and across the business world our website and social media channels have been our primary channels. In addition, we emailed employers, schools, and stakeholders most months to keep them informed of key decisions and how we were here to support them. Internally I established a weekly meeting for any staff member to raise questions, concerns, or queries directly with me – this is something I have committed to keeping in place indefinitely.

As a key anchor institution in the region we’ve stepped up our collaborative efforts. We launched our ‘Bounce Back Pledge’ in July 2020, and our ‘Covid Recovery Commitments’ in July 2021. The impact of these initiatives has been positive, since July 2020 the College has successfully worked with over 900 employers with over 35 employers formally supporting our 2020 pledge. Working with partners in the Post-16 sector we have collectively progressed the plans for the Solent Institute of Technology, been collectively successful in securing Strategic Development Funds for a number of pilot projects that are linked to the ambitions of the Skills for Jobs white paper, and have provided impartial advice for employers to access clear, up-to-date and unbiased information about training and education opportunities. Our most recent effort has been in partnership with Solent University and seen us launch sector specific guides for employers to support them meet their skills and succession planning needs.

Learner awards celebrate remarkable individuals who, through learning, have transformed their own lives and their families, friends, their communities, and their workplaces. (L-R Lou Gittens Vice Principal Curriculum – now retried, Sophie Hannington, Level 4 AAT Professional Diploma in Accounting who won Adult learner of the Year and Resilience Award, Eleanor McGeachy, Level 2 Vehicle Technology who won Young Learner of the Year and Resilience Award, Areerath Finney, Lead Adult Care Worker Apprentice who won Apprentice of the Year Award and Professional Award, and Paul Cox.)  

The pandemic has been difficult and challenging for us all. As such celebrating successes and the professionalism of learners and staff has been a key priority for me. We’ve kept up our efforts to enter learners and staff for external awards and made sure we held learner and staff award events (albeit in somewhat modified ways)! We share, and champion success internally as regularly as possible and the news section of our website is kept up to date with our successes as they happen. 

Our learners are diverse and come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some require support whether that be emotional, mental, physical, financial and / or technological. Like others we have ensured that all needs that we know about have been met to the best of our ability. Based on measures like attendance and retention we have considered our efforts to be largely successful as despite all of the disruption and change levels have remained largely consistent with our pre-pandemic levels. 

   “Given the circumstances of COVID the college did a great job helping me through this course. The teaching and support has been very good and consistent throughout. All of the staff I have come across during my time with the college have been incredibly helpful and great at what they do. Lockdowns have been tough on teachers and I don’t think the college could have done any more to improve my experience.” Student, Access to University and HE

Seeking to ensure that our learners and employer partners could complete their courses and assessments during the current academic year has been a core focus for us all. This has been made particularly complicated with the teacher assessed grades (TAG) methodology for some courses whilst others have seen assessment adapted. Where possible we wanted to ensure that our learners’ studies continued at the pace and tempo they had first signed up to. We’ve adapted our timetables, opened longer, and always prioritised the scheduling of assessments. We remained open for assessments during the second lockdown and as I write this at the start of the 2021/22 academic only a very small minority of learners are yet to finish their studies.

    “Tutors were very supportive and helped me a lot during Covid home learning. Technicians were so helpful and were amazingly supportive when tutors were helping other students.” Student, Level 2 Diploma in Women’s Hairdressing

The ‘so what’ question is one I regularly use and think about a lot, how do we know if all the efforts above have had any impact? Like many we run ‘exit’ surveys for learners as they finish their courses. These surveys are run by an external company who provide services to over 100 Colleges in the UK and have over 1,000,000 responses recorded across their bank of questions. I am always focused on how our learners (some might call them the ‘customer’) respond to the question ‘I would recommend the College to a friend’. As a result of the collective efforts of the team I was delighted when the 2020/21 results for our 16-19 (94% agree) and adult learners (96% agree) showed sustained improvement and significantly exceed the national benchmark – quite remarkable with all things considered and I am very grateful and proud to work with such a committed, professional, and expert team.

Paul Cox, August 2021