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Education briefing: A wider reopening for FE – what does it mean for colleges?

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Coronavirus


On 24 May 2020, the Prime Minster announced the Government’s intention for a phased wider opening of the school and college sectors in England. Although most of the media coverage, and subsequent guidance, focussed on the position in respect of schools, the announcement also related to sixth form and FE colleges. The announcement stated that the Government’s expectation was that from 15 June FE institutions would provide some face to face contact to help those students with exams next year to prepare for them - and that around a quarter of such students would be attending the college at any one point.

In this briefing we look at the key issues this development entails for colleges, including the numbers involved, what protective measures should be in place, how a college decides which students can receive on-site learning (and how often) and the degree to which colleges retain flexibility.

What does the wider opening entail?

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently updated its guidance for further education and skills providers in order to provide further information to help colleges plan for this wider opening. This guidance states that further education settings (including general further education colleges, sixth form colleges, and other providers) should plan on the basis that from the week commencing 15 June, they can broaden the number of 16 to 19 learners attending the institution.

However, it is made clear that remote education should remain the predominant mode of learning during this time and that the number of learners attending at any one time will be limited to a quarter of those on the first year of a two-year 16 to 19 study programme. This figure of 25% includes vulnerable learners and the dependants of critical workers in the first year of a 16 to 19 study programme. It is, however, in addition to the provision for vulnerable learners and the dependants of critical workers from other cohorts - the guidance gives as an example those in the second year of a study programme, or older learners with an EHC plan.

The guidance recognises that there are situations where there will need to be flexibility where other groups of students can be included in the on-site provision - examples given are:

• learners over 19 - although the main face to face contact where permitted is expressed to be for 16 to 19 learners, there may be some courses that include learners within a class that are over 19

• 16 to 19 learners who were due to finish this academic year, but have not been able to because their assessments have been deferred

• students on extended programmes (for example because they are studying part time, alongside caring responsibilities or had to retake exams or part of their programme) who are part way through a study programme, and have key exams and assessments next year

In these circumstances, however, it is important to still comply with the overall limit. Therefore, if any of these students attend the college for on-site delivery, they must be included within the permitted 25%.

Is it possible for a college to restrict numbers to below the maximum limit?

The simple answer to this is ‘yes’.

The figure of a quarter of those on the first year of a two-year 16 to 19 study programme (plus vulnerable learners and the dependants of critical workers from other cohorts) is a maximum figure and the guidance recognises that a smaller number of attendees may be appropriate in the circumstances of the institution concerned.

In order to determine what level of attendance is appropriate, the guidance states that colleges should conduct risk assessments in order to understand:

• the number of learners and staff likely to attend

• whether they can be safely accommodated in accordance with guidance to implement protective measures

• the availability of teaching and non-teaching staff and required ratios, including contingency plans should members of the workforce be shielding or self-isolating

• support services required to increase the number of individuals on site (for example, catering) and how they can be provided

• what measures, in addition to those that have already been undertaken during the current level of provision, will need to be in place to accommodate additional numbers (including additional cleaning required of spaces and equipment following use)

Protective measures

The guidance says that the DfE will ask institutions to implement a range of protective measures. This includes increased cleaning, reducing ‘pinch points’ (such as at the start and end of day), and utilising outdoor space.

In line with implementing protective measures and reducing contacts, colleges are advised to limit the attendance of learners at any one time and to keep them in small and consistent groups. In particular, mixing between different groups of learners should be kept to a minimum.

Colleges should also aim to practise social distancing, including keeping students two metres apart from each other where possible. The DfE perceives this is more achievable for this age group than with, for example, primary school children.

In preparing for the increased number of students commencing on 15 June, colleges are asked to consider how their students travel to and from the college and to encourage them to walk, cycle or drive where possible. In addition they are advised to consider:

• how many learners in the eligible cohorts will be travelling at the same time

• how they are likely to travel

• the likelihood of learners mixing with each other and coming into contact with other people on the journey to and from the college

The guidance says colleges should ensure that public transport to travel to and from the college should only be used when no other option is available, and where it is totally necessary – this should not be during peak times. Colleges are advised to introduce staggered start and end times to achieve this and are referred to the guidance published by the Department for Transport for passengers who need to travel during the coronavirus outbreak.

Colleges are also directed to the DfE’s guidance on “implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings” which contains detailed advice on:

• environmental cleaning

• ensuring supplies of cleaning and handwashing products

• testing and tracing


• what education institutions should do in response to a case of COVID-19 being confirmed

Whilst those who are clinically vulnerable, clinically extremely vulnerable, or are living with someone who is, are also reminded that they should follow this guidance.

How should this on-site learning be allocated?

An issue for colleges may be deciding how to divide up any on-site learning between those students in the first year of their study programme (bearing in mind that full attendance should be available for vulnerable learners and the dependants of critical workers). Should all these students be given equal opportunity to attend or could the college allow more regular attendance for certain students – or those on certain courses?

The guidance helpfully says that colleges will have the flexibility, in deciding what will maximise learner engagement and support more vulnerable learners, to decide the appropriate mix of online and face to face content for each programme. It recognises that for some programmes, remote education will be working effectively.

The guidance states that in balancing on-site and online delivery for 16 to 19 learners eligible to return, colleges will need to consider the following issues:

• there may be types of study where it has been more challenging to engage learners in the online offer

• there may be courses which require on-site provision in order to undertake technical instruction – such as those requiring the use of equipment

• the type of course may impact on the risk of transmission - some may be more challenging where by their nature they involve personal contact, whereas others may be easier to undertake instruction in outside settings or larger spaces

• where remote education is working well with high engagement, colleges may wish to maintain a larger element of online delivery

• it may be advantageous to offer all learners some face to face contact, even if to varying degrees


Whilst it is helpful for colleges that they are going to be allowed flexibility in the way they extend their current provision for vulnerable learners and the dependants of critical workers to encompass a grouping of students which the Government believes is next in the list of priorities due to exams next year, it is clear that decisions will need to be carefully made.

In particular, colleges will need to bear in mind the duty of care they owe to their staff and students in the context of a wider opening in on-site provision, balanced against the desire to assist those students with exams next year in a fair and proportionate way – whilst at the same time taking into account the fact that some students may be in greater need of face to face contact than others, especially given the reduced basis on which this can be provided at the current time. Decisions on the allocation of on-site learning should also be informed by an equality impact assessment.