Newcastle College – adapting to a pandemic

May 1, 2020

For a city centre college that has invested heavily in providing hands-on environments for its students, the challenge for staff has been to maintain standards of learning during the COVID-19 lockdown – with some inventive results

Based in the centre of Newcastle’s diverse west end community and part of college group NCG, Newcastle College provides education for everyone, from school leavers and apprentices to adults and degree students.

But as the Government response to the  coronavirus pandemic became stricter and the prospect of school and college closures grew increasingly likely, leaders at the college were tasked with preparing for an inevitable move to remote learning. The biggest question was, how could the hands-on experience that Newcastle College is known for, be translated online?

“I imagine it was definitely a challenge for every education provider, in a number of ways,” says principal Tony Lewin.

“That face-to-face relationship, being in a setting which is fit for purpose and learning alongside your peers, is all part of the value of education.

“Our biggest challenge was moving our vocational subjects online. Our facilities, the hands-on aspect of the training we offer and our engagement with employers and with industry are really significant parts of our courses.”

Those parts of the college’s offering are significant and the college has invested heavily in providing industry-standard training facilities. Students benefit from learning in environments that reflect the real-working situations of the industry they’re training for, whether that’s in a simulated hospital ward, a hair and beauty salon, or a building filled with real railway tracks and overhead lines.

The high standard of these environments is demonstrated by the college’s recent donation of PPE to the NHS and local healthcare providers. Hundreds of masks, aprons, clinical wipes and gloves, usually used in the college’s Health and Social Care department, Rail and Civil Engineering Academy and Automotive Academy, have been donated to the RVI hospital, Daft as a Brush Cancer Patient Care and Allied Healthcare in Newcastle in response to the ongoing PPE shortage during the fight against COVID-19.

While academic subjects like English and maths can be taught remotely more easily, it has taken more innovative methods to teach hands-on subjects such as construction, aviation or hair and beauty. One beauty lecturer has gone to great lengths to ensure that her students are not missing out, creating her own YouTube channel where she simulates classroom lessons and posts resources out to students in advance to enable them to complete their assignments.

“I am really impressed with how well our students and colleagues have adapted to the change,” Tony continues. “Just a few short weeks ago, we couldn’t have imagined we would be in this position, but here we are.

“The speed with which we have moved to this new way of operating is a credit to the flexibility and ingenuity of all my colleagues across the organisation.

“Teachers have been working really hard to find effective ways to teach remotely and they’ve been really creative with their solutions. Of course, there has been a lot of video conference lessons and we are lucky that we can keep up that face-to- face interaction wherever we can. I’m seeing new ideas all of the time and it’s fantastic.

“Our students are really engaged, which is all we can ask of them right now. Just like everybody else, they’re experiencing a lot of stress and uncertainty and we’ve made it clear to them that their health and wellbeing is their priority.

“Our priority is ensuring that no student is at a disadvantage when this is over and that they’re prepared for a return to college, whenever that may happen. So it’s brilliant to see that they’re engaged in this way of learning and want to prepare for their next steps.”

It is not just lessons that have been moved online, the vital services that students receive when attending college have too – something that Tony thinks proves just how valuable colleges are to communities.

Tony continues: “We do still have a duty of care for our students and of course, we also have to ensure that our vulnerable students are still able to access support.

“Being able to safeguard our students while they’re not on campus is an ongoing challenge, but a vital one. Our support teams are working really hard to provide all of our support services remotely to students and to keep in touch with those students who need that support on an ongoing basis.
“This situation is unprecedented and hopefully won’t occur again in our lifetime, but it has highlighted which roles and sectors are providing essential services.

“We have always known that a college is a safe place for a lot of people and that it provides much more than education. It is not all about exam results or statistics, but it is a place that offers support and a safe environment where young people can not only learn practical skills, but all of the softer and social skills that they need to succeed and thrive in the real world.

“That human interaction is really important and while we’ve proven that we can adapt to a new way of learning, I’m really looking forward to welcoming our students back onto campus.”

Newcastle College

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