Invest in the next generation

October 2, 2020

As the UK shifts to adjust to another round of regulations and changes in the fight against COVID-19, the Government’s biggest challenge appears to be balancing the recovery of a fragile economy with the health and wellbeing of the population. With the recent reopening of schools, colleges and universities, how are education providers dealing with this balancing act and stepping up to help students amid the new normal? Scott Bullock, principal at Newcastle College explains just how critical education is on the road to recovery

I don’t think any education provider could have been fully prepared for the events of this year, or the potential long-term impact of them.

Learning from home during lockdown looked very different for every young person, but the critical role that education has in society definitely became very clear. I think perhaps that is why, despite introducing increasingly stricter regulations again, the Government seems determined to keep schools and colleges open. I absolutely agree that it is crucial.

A number of news reports released over the past few months have indicated that it is younger people who will be disproportionately affected by  this pandemic.

In fact, months of remote learning and home schooling, cancelled exams and delays to results have already disadvantaged them. Looking ahead, our students and graduates are now facing the prospect of being newly qualified in a job market that is more competitive than ever.

The single most important thing that we can do as a college and a university centre, is to ensure that our focus remains on helping our students reach their potential, achieve the best results they can and gain as much hands-on experience as they can too. That means making sure their education continues with as little disruption as possible.

This is a challenge, as it will be for every education provider. Safety and security have always been high on our priorities but creating and maintaining a ‘COVID-secure’ learning environment is not something we ever thought we would need to do. We’ve worked really hard to put all of the right measures in place, despite the changing goalposts.

We must now focus on the challenge of continuing to provide excellent education, practical learning and a great student experience in the middle of that environment.

Face-to-face connection, learning in ‘real-world’ facilities and gaining those hands-on skills are a huge part of vocational education. So while the shift to a ‘blended’ learning model is a huge change for us, we are determined to still offer all of those benefits to our students and I’m pleased to say that it is something that we are achieving.

I think it’s now more important than ever to focus on the positives and there absolutely are some.

It is easy to talk about the disadvantages facing young people, but they are also learning vital skills that will serve them well in their future careers.

Resilience, independence, commitment and determination are just a few. This generation of graduates will likely be some of the toughest and hardest working. With the right support and guidance in place, I am determined that Newcastle College students can leave us feeling confident about their futures.

Like every other sector, we now need to innovate, diversify and adapt our approach to meet the needs of customers. In our case, that’s the needs of our learners and the needs of businesses in our region too, because supporting businesses to develop is another really important part of what we do.

Right now, employers of all shapes and sizes are facing really big challenges but a skilled and motivated workforce are key to driving those businesses forward.

The last six months have been hard for everybody, but I can’t imagine how much harder they would have been without technology to keep us connected with each other and to keep us working and learning.

We already knew that advancing technology was changing the way that businesses work and creating skills gaps, but it has now helped so many businesses to adapt what they do and it will continue to help them going forward.

That is why we have forged ahead and launched new courses, new apprenticeships and new degrees this year, so that we can play our part in developing a workforce with the skills that our local economy will need to recover. Our approach includes a real focus on digital skills and embedding them into courses that you might not have considered before – such as engineering – and we’ve just launched our new foundation degree in engineering with applied digital technologies.

Another big priority for us this year is apprenticeships. They are at the heart of the government’s ‘Plan for Jobs’ for a reason – because they are invaluable to employers. The scheme is offering up to £3000 for each new apprentice hired until January so now really is the time to look into what apprentices can bring to your business.

Apprentices are naturally motivated, committed and eager to learn, they can adapt to change and they bring fresh new ideas and perspectives. These are the skills and the qualities that will help businesses to not only recover but to keep growing. Recruiting an apprentice is an investment and I think doing so now could really pay off for many businesses in the coming months and years.

Of course, it’s also important to recognise the opportunities that apprenticeships offer to the apprentices as well. They get a real wage while learning real skills and gaining real-world experience – the long-term opportunities this opens up for them are invaluable.

In my role I am lucky enough to see many of the journeys that our students, graduates and apprentices take while they’re with us and after they leave us too. I have seen just how valuable their passion and their skills can be in the workplace and in their communities.

So, at a time when our young people and our businesses are both facing huge challenges, I would urge any employer to invest in a young person – whether that is an apprentice, a trainee or a graduate – because you can really help each other to overcome those challenges and succeed.

Newcastle College

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