Collaborative innovation fuels Newcastle College’s skills drive

February 3, 2021

Adapting to a pandemic has led to innovation that will pave the way for a bigger and better apprenticeship provision at Newcastle College.

National apprenticeship week is always a big event in any college calendar but especially at Newcastle College.

For the past few years, the college has celebrated by hosting its own annual Apprenticeship Awards, which recognise and reward apprentices, employers and the critical college staff who support them.

In 2020, the event was bigger than ever, held at St James’ Park and sponsored by local apprenticeship employers including Bell Group, Dove, Multi-Lab and Malhotra Group.

It was expected that plans would be made for a 2021 event, but the arrival of COVID-19 changed everything.

Instead, NCG (the national group of colleges that Newcastle College belongs to) has spent the past year navigating the challenges of the pandemic, learning to support vocational students and apprentices from a safe distance.

“It just didn’t feel right to hold a virtual celebration,” says Grant Glendinning, [pictured] executive principal for NCG North and group strategic lead for apprenticeships.

“Almost every employer has struggled with enforced closure at some point over the past year and every single apprentice has had their own challenge.

“Whether they’ve been furloughed, adapted to home work and home study or, in some sad instances, made redundant, a celebration where we focus on achievement and shine a spotlight on a small number of people didn’t seem the right way to mark the occasion.

Grant continues: “Colleges and apprenticeship providers weren’t given a road-map to supporting apprentices – or any of our learners – through this period.

“We’ve adapted in the same way we’ve adapted learning for all of our students; keeping them safe while they’re on campus and providing critical, remote support during periods of lockdown.

“The difference, of course, is that many are still attending the workplace, while others simply can’t because they’re working in industries like hospitality and hairdressing.

“So, it’s been really important that the support we offer has been based on individual circumstances.

“Our skills trainers and assessors have done a fantastic job of adapting to the changes.

“They’re still attending workplaces where it is right and safe to do so, because supporting our learners is always our first priority, and we aim to continue education and training for them with as little disruption as possible.”

Disruption, however, is exactly what the pandemic has brought, especially to the further education sector.

But, like many other businesses who have been forced to adapt, it has led to some exciting innovations at Newcastle College and NCG that will pave the way for an even better apprenticeship provision in the near future.

“We do have some exciting apprenticeship related projects about to launch,” confirms Grant.

“The first is the launch of our inaugural inter-college competition – NCG Skills.

“It’s our very own version of World Skills, which is an amazing skills competition where students and apprentices across our colleges have had lots of success in recent years.

“We want to build on these fantastic successes and offer these opportunities to even more of our students and apprentices across our entire group.

He continues: “Skills competitions offer learners a great opportunity to train for excellence and really strengthen their hands-on experience. They allow learners to share their skills, knowledge and expertise, learn from and be inspired by others, boost their confidence and enhance their employability prospects.

“Six out of our seven colleges specialise in vocational education and at a time when events like World Skills can’t take place, it makes sense to take advantage of our network and hold our own competition, although we hope this year’s event is the first of what will become an annual event.

“It means we can offer the experience to even more of our technical students and apprentices and ensure that enterprise, engagement and employability remain at the centre of the learning experience for all of our students developing their vocational skills.

Grant says: “Our colleges have already all held their own first rounds of the competition, which has involved learners from vocational areas, such as bricklaying, plumbing, hospitality and hairdressing, following a brief to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.

“The winners from those college heats will go through to the inter-college final and eventually those winners will be encouraged to apply for and take part in World Skills.

“We’ve received some funding from Crescent Publishing Consortium to help us get this off the ground and we’ve been supported by some of our employer partners too, who are acting as judges and even providing prizes.

“In particular, NOCN is providing outstanding support for this initiative because they recognise the value it has to apprentices and their future employability, which of course is the main end goal – to develop people who are skilled and can add value to our local employers.

Grant adds: “Our live finals were originally planned to take place during National Apprenticeship Week with each college hosting a different vocational area, but unfortunately the national lockdown has put that on hold.

“It was disappointing for our learners, but we still hope to hold it later in the academic year.

“It’s been so rewarding already and we’re really excited to see how it develops in the coming years.”

Despite the plans for any sort of event being put on hold for now, Newcastle College has had plenty to think about in the lead up to National Apprenticeship Week. On top of campus closures, assessment cancellations and the introduction of mass testing
for students and colleagues, the Government has focused much attention on its future plans for further education.

Last year, the Prime Minister promised a Lifetime Skills Guarantee and Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced incentives for employers taking on new apprentices, which all hinted that a plan was on the way and that skills would be the driving force of that plan.

In late January, the long-awaited FE Skills for Jobs White Paper was released, which puts employers at the heart of skills training and skills at the centre of the strategy to ‘Build Back Better’ in a post-COVID-19 and post-Brexit economy.

Aptly, the theme of this year’s National Apprenticeship Week is ‘Build the Future’, which acknowledges the important role that apprentices will have in the coming months and years as the Government’s plans are put into action.

Grant continues: “Our role as a college, and indeed as a group, is to develop a workforce that is skilled, fit for purpose and in a position to drive forward our regions, support our local economies and help businesses recover from the impact of the past year.

“Apprenticeships are a vital way of giving people of all ages the skills they need to get ahead and to give us the workforce our economy needs to recover.

“Apprentices possess skills that will be invaluable to employers trying to build back up and plan for the future.

“The past year has proven just how resilient, adaptable and innovative they are.

“It is for that reason that businesses who are in a position to recruit apprentices have continued to do so, and we haven’t stopped supporting those businesses
– we’ve recently helped DXC to recruit a new cohort of apprentices for their North East headquarters.

“Our ambition at NCG is to become a leading provider in all our college locations, growing and increasing the numbers of higher, degree and specialist apprenticeships.”

The focus on supporting employers and local economies is one which the Government says will ensure colleges are meeting the needs of their region.

This is nothing new for Newcastle College and the colleges in its group, which have always ensured employers have driven the development of their curriculum.

“All of NCG’s colleges are at the heart of their communities,” Grant says.

“Everything we do is with the aim of making an impact locally and I think it’s clear that Newcastle College plays an integral role in the North East and responds to the needs of employers here.

“The work we have done to support key areas, such as green energy, digital tech and engineering, is really important and that will continue, even without the Government focus, because we know how vital it is that our students are gaining the skills they need.

“The great benefit of being part of NCG is that
we can collaborate with colleges across the entire country to share best practice and find the best ways of supporting our own learners, our local employers and our own regions.

Grant continues: “We call it collaborative innovation and together we help each other to make local impact that turns into national impact.

“This includes the way that we support our apprentices and their employers and help them to succeed. One thing we have found throughout this pandemic is that as we have all adapted to working remotely, we have been able to connect and collaborate more than ever.

“That has benefited us in ways we might not have expected. We have not only managed to develop plans for NCG Skills, but a brand-new way to support apprentices and employers here in the North East.

“Very soon NCG will be opening an Apprenticeship Hub, based at its headquarters on Newcastle College’s campus,” says Grant.

“It will combine the apprenticeship provision of Carlisle College and Newcastle College and will aim to provide a ‘go-to’ service for employers and aspirational apprentices across the North East and Cumbria, but will provide support with apprenticeship delivery for colleges across the entire NCG group.

“It is going to be just one part of a wider set of services that we have planned for employers, which will offer support for local businesses such as workforce planning advice, business clinics and specialist training.

Grant adds: “For would-be apprentices, it’ll be a concentration of high-quality careers and training opportunities that will help them gain the skills and experience they need for a meaningful and sustainable career.

“For Newcastle College, it will enable us to drive quality, grow our apprenticeship provision and support the recovery of the North East’s economy, all while we support NCG to achieve its vision of enabling social mobility and economic prosperity through exceptional education.”

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