Month December 2020

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Newcastle Sixth Form College Welcomes Government Plans for 2021 Exams

Principal of Newcastle Sixth Form College, Gerard Garvey, responds to the government’s most recent plans for exam season of 2021.

In almost all other areas of my life – including arrangements for Christmas dinner – planning more than a few weeks ahead has seemed like something I just shouldn’t do in 2020. One critical exception however, was the Government’s recent announcement about arrangements for the 2021 exam series. For me and the rest of the team at Newcastle Sixth Form College, this was categorically the right decision and I welcome the Government’s desire to press ahead with these exams whilst making due allowances for the times we are living through.

This summer we saw the impact on student confidence that confusion caused as the exams that they had been preparing for were so suddenly cancelled. Whilst I accept that changes are needed to ensure nobody is disadvantaged, I am particularly pleased certainty has been provided this side of Christmas.

For us at NSFC, the value for students of seeing years of study and preparation validated by a rigorous assessment and qualifications they can progress with is invaluable. We pride ourselves on being a ‘widening participation college’. The cohort of learners we support in the centre of Newcastle includes young people from all backgrounds, including some of the most disadvantaged. For them, showing that all they have overcome was worth it is a very particular prize.

Potentially the biggest challenge for colleges in relation to exams is around the GCSE resits in English and Maths. I am strategic lead for English and Maths across the seven colleges in our national group and we see too many students whose lost learning from Year 11 will make preparation for exams this summer a huge challenge. For those currently in possession of a grade 3, the gap between their current level and a grade 4 has never been so wide.

We have been fortunate that – through a combination of tough timetable management and our more recent participation in the Government’s mass testing scheme pilot – we have been safely and responsibly delivering 100% face to face teaching, all day every day since September. This means that, with the help of technology to catch up on that content which the rushed first lockdown impacted, we are confident that our students will be ready for these exams. They and their families seem confident too – we will shortly announce our best ever learner survey results and feedback from parents about our commitment has been fantastic.

I recognise that not all schools and colleges will be in this position. Once again, we have benefitted massively from our membership of the NCG group of colleges. We have been able to collaborate and draw upon the group’s resources to quickly provide the technology to live stream lessons and on estate management resources to help safely facilitate over 400 COVID tests a day on campus in partnership with the Ministry of Defence.

Despite everything that we and the rest of the sector have undertaken to keep learners’ education on track, we must also recognise that students taking exams next year are doing so under the most extraordinary peace time conditions this country has seen since 1945. Whilst it is vital we fight the idea that the 2021 exams will be easier, it is right that the grading will boost fairness reflect the disruption that so many leaners have faced, both in schools and colleges and potentially at home. Similarly, changes such as use of formula tables in STEM exams and better guidance on key subject areas represent ways of keeping these exams fair without dumbing down either content or assessment. A grade A in 2021 needs to hold the same value as a grade A in any other year.

The young people sitting these exams will leave formal education at an unprecedented time and they will be the ones who have to grapple with immense challenges – both personally and as citizens of this country, and indeed the world. Selling them short with a miscommunicated or fudged set of results will not equip them for this challenge. No one doubts that the coming academic year will be no less challenging than the last. For me however, the decision to press ahead with this exam series in a way that is supportive, rigorous and fair sets the right tone and goals for the challenges ahead.

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NCG Apprenticeship Conference Creates Impact in FE

NCG held its third annual apprenticeship conference this week, welcoming over 400 delegates to the virtual event.

Colleagues from across NCG joined invited guests from Hartlepool College, Macclesfield College, Nelson College Group, The Skills Network and Pareto at the event, which focused on approaches to End Point Assessment.

A number of guest speakers from End Point Assessment Organisations supported the event, including NOCN, NCFE, City and Guilds and Pearson, who all delivered workshops on specific standards and offered their own insight and expertise.

Ross Radford, Lead Practitioner for Apprenticeships and Learner Progress at NCG commented: “After the challenges of 2020, we were pleased that we were still able to hold NCG’s Great Place to Teach Apprenticeship Conference and that by holding a virtual event, we were able to engage with even more people.

“This year, we were not only able to reach more of our own colleagues, but for the first time we were able to invite guests from across the sector. It was fantastic that a staple NCG event could be used to network, collaborate and share best practice to support colleges outside of our group, which is an important part of NCG’s strategic aims.

“We have an exciting year ahead as we develop our apprenticeship provision even further and I look forward to embedding some of the brilliant ideas shared at the event.”

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How Covid-19 has affected student mental health and how NCG colleges are stepping up to provide extra support.

By Melanie Kay (Newcastle College), Anne-Marie Bates (Kidderminster College), Yvette Kay (Kidderminster College) and Sharon Cousins (Lewisham College).

When NCG colleges closed their doors and moved swiftly to remote teaching and learning in March in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was little time to prepare for the impact on our students.

Isolation, health concerns and uncertainty about the future has likely had a negative impact on the mental health of most people in the country, but particularly young people. And those students who have experienced care, or are already seeking academic and wellbeing support, are even more likely to have felt the negative effects.

With seven colleges across the country each working to support their own student communities, the teams have discussed how they have individually stepped up their support provision in 2020.

“Student requests for support related to mental health and wellbeing are continuing to rise this year,” says Melanie Kay, ALS Manager at Newcastle College. “Poor mental health in young people was already rapidly on the rise, so while there is some correlation, this increase can’t be directly linked to the pandemic.

“That is particularly true for young males, who we know often don’t discuss their thoughts openly thanks to the societal expectations of men to be strong and the stigma attached to talking about their emotions. It is in fact an awful statistic that suicides are significantly rising among men and last year the North East had the highest suicide rates in England.

“This is a frightening statistic, especially when we consider that almost half of care leavers at Newcastle College are male.

“If we also consider the realities facing care leavers – 20% of homeless young people are likely to have been in care and 40% of young people leaving care are unlikely to be in education or employment – and add the pressures of Covid-19 to that mix, the likelihood is that the need for support is going to be greater than ever from our care experienced students.”

Yvette Kay, Deputy Student Services Manager at Kidderminster College agrees that Covid can only be adding to an already anxious student population, as the College’s counsellor has seen a rise in learners with anxiety related issues.

“We have definitely seen a rise, but we can’t attribute all of these to Covid,” Yvette says. “We are asking questions about Covid and lockdown during welfare interventions but the general feedback is that it has been fine and some have even enjoyed the time spent at home, although many are concerned about the economy and their future.”

And at Lewisham College, many care leavers are young unaccompanied Asylum Seekers, living independently or in semi-independent accommodation, says Sharon Cousins, Head of Student Services and Learning Technology for Lewisham College who adds:

“This has led to many of these students finding the lockdown extremely stressful and isolating. Many suffer from digital poverty and a lack of financial stability, receiving only basic financial support for food and accommodation, so they often haven’t had the resources to interact with the outside world.

“Add to this that English is not their first language, fear and anxiety related to Covid and travelling across London and the support network of the college not being available during the summer months, the current situation has really heightened their feelings of isolation and vulnerability, which has had a very negative impact on those who have already been struggling with their mental health.”

So, what have the Colleges done to ensure they are providing the right level of support to students, particularly those leaving care?

Every NCG College has dedicated student support teams in place to provide academic and personal support to those students who need it and these teams are working harder than ever to ensure students receive the right support as quickly as possible.

“At Newcastle College we have our internal Counselling, Safeguarding, Pastoral Support and SEND teams to support students and we also work closely with our local partners to effectively signpost students and work collaboratively,” says Melanie. “Communication and improved relationships with local authority key workers is now vital for us to be reactive to the increasing support need that we are facing.

“Raising awareness through college campaigns and our social media and digital learning channels is crucial to make sure we can provide support in a timely manner.”

While these teams work separately with students in their own colleges, they also work together through an NCG cross-college working group ‘Care and Connect’, meeting monthly to share best working practice, find innovative solutions to problems and identify ways that NCG can progress the work it already does.

During lockdown, NCG signed up to two partnerships which will ensure that students across all its colleges receive support with their mental health and wellbeing. It became the first further education provider to form a partnership with the Care Leaver Covenant, committing to going the extra mile to support care leavers and help remove barriers for them to access higher education and employment opportunities.

In addition, NCG has also partnered with Fika, a mental health app designed to help students stay motivated, focused and connected while studying remotely.

The app features daily livestreams, activities and videos from expert psychologists and professional athletes that are aimed at helping students overcome the mental health impact of Covid-19 and remote study, tackling topics including connecting, managing stress, self-care and creating healthy habits.

Tutors and teachers across the NCG community have been using the app to open up discussions individually with students or as part of lessons and the community feature helps ensure that every student can connect and share with others across the country.

NCG is doing everything it can to support its student community at this time, but there is one important part of that support that is beyond its control – staying open for students.

Melanie concludes: “Throughout lockdown, some of our care experienced students now living independently longed to attend college to see a familiar and friendly face in person, rather than via a digital platform. So now that we’re able to see those students in person, safely, that is really helping. It is most important that we stay open.”

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NCG responds to the November Spending Review

Liz Bromley, NCG CEO and Grant Glendinning, Executive Principal NCG (North), respond to the 2020 Spending Review.

Liz Bromley, commented:

NCG welcomes the news of additional, much-needed funding for Further Education in this week’s Spending Review.

“This funding will be vital in supporting colleges as we prepare to play a key role in ‘levelling-up’ Britain in a challenging post-Covid and post-Brexit economy.

“In particular, this funding will help us to deliver on our own mission of enabling social mobility and economic prosperity through exceptional education and outstanding learning environments.

“We are ready to support everyone who will need to access education and training in the coming years and we look forward to working closely with local government and employers to ensure that enterprise, engagement and employability remain at the centre of our student experience.”

Grant Glendinning,  said:

“The announcement of additional support for apprenticeships in the Spending Review is welcome news for NCG, and the 2,000 apprentices we have on board across our colleges.

“The government is rightly focusing on a skills-led recovery for the UK post-Covid, and apprentices will play a huge part in supporting businesses to overcome the challenges of the next few months and years.

“Apprenticeships are key to developing a workforce that is fit for purpose, providing vital opportunities for people of all ages to gain skills and experience while earning a wage. The extension of the incentives scheme and extra support for SMEs to hire apprentices will help local employers, who are the cornerstone of our local economies, to recover, rebuild and benefit from the skills, enthusiasm, and innovation that apprentices can offer.”

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