Home / Further Education

In conversation with Liz Bromley, CEO of leading national college group NCG

How has NCG, and the broader education sector in the North East, had to adapt and change as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?

Since the start of the pandemic there have been many policy changes. These have fluctuated from ‘colleges are open’ and ‘colleges are closed’ to ‘colleges are partially closed but open to vulnerable students and children of key workers’. Following this last lockdown, the category of vulnerable young learners has expanded to include those that have limited access to IT or study space.

We’ve been really challenged by the constant changes in guidance and we’ve had to make sure that whatever the scenario, we can continue with the core business of educating our students without it being too difficult for them to engage with us.

The biggest shift has been digital transformation; we’re now able to teach 100 per cent remotely, in the same way we can work 100 per cent remotely. We’ve had to be really mindful that while most staff have access to good quality laptops, strong broadband connections and IT support, that’s not necessarily the case for all our students. So we’ve had to be fleet of foot and responsive to policy changes, but also really holistic in terms of thinking about what digital transformation means.

We’ve also had to adapt where it comes to exams. In 2020 GCSE and A Levels were cancelled. We were then told, categorically, that GSCE and A Levels would take place in summer 2021, and now we’ve been told that they won’t.

Throughout all of this we’ve been delivering vocational skills and BTECs – which are quite often the ones employers are most interested in – and they’ve almost been forgotten about. Ultimately, we’ve had to make some really big decisions to fill the gaps in guidance and policy.

Do you envisage some of the changes continuing when COVID-19 restrictions are eventually lifted?

Absolutely. Rye Hill House – which sits at the top of the campus of Newcastle College – is where my office is, along with the rest of the NCG senior and core central services teams. We’ve done some sums in terms of how much money we can save by not running that site as a head office anymore and actually opening it up to employers, to apprentices and to enterprise. Yes, people will still be able to go into the office, but it will be a hot desk environment.

NCG has seven colleges; two in London, one in the Midlands, two in the North West and two in North East. I would normally get round and visit each of those sites over the course of a fortnight. Well now I can visit them all in one day, and I can do all of that without spending anything on mileage, train fares, or hotel costs. The way we work now is much more cost effective, and much quicker.

The combined effect is that NCG is contributing to the green agenda by creating less vehicle emissions, using less electricity and gas to keep our buildings warm, and not travelling, unnecessarily, around the country. All of those things are making us think about cost efficiency, decarbonisation and contributing to the green industrial revolution.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted teaching and learning at NCG?

If a year ago someone had said to me, ‘do you think you should set up a strategic project to try and get NCG into blended learning and flexible working?’, it would probably have taken us around 24-36 months to roll it out.

In March 2020 the country went into lockdown and within ten days we were teaching remotely. We were also working remotely and becoming competent at this. That whole mindset around big strategic decisions taking years to implement has changed; through necessity we’ve proven this is not the case.

Our fantastic teachers, who may have never thought online tuition was a feasible option, are doing fabulous things with online platforms. Many of them are using YouTube, for example, to record videos of themselves cutting hair, applying beauty techniques, dancing, and even building brick walls. All our teachers have learned how to deliver what they do in a classroom at home, with a camera.

I think the pandemic has demonstrated that teaching and learning is there for all of us. Even when we’re working we can learn very quickly to educate ourselves and work in new ways.

Of course we’ve had to be really conscious of the quality. When everything is face-to-face it’s very easy to drop into a classroom and look at students’ faces and know if they’re engaged. Online it’s much harder, so we’ve had to be inventive in terms of our quality assurance. We’ve launched lots of student engagement surveys so we’re getting feedback in a variety of ways to make sure the teaching and learning is fit for purpose.

Until the coronavirus pandemic there were just two functional skills our students needed, maths and English. Well now there are three – English, maths and digital literacy. We’re now in a world where if you are not digitally literate you are as illiterate as someone that can’t spell or add up. The whole area of digital literacy in helping people become employable is another change to our teaching and learning.

The big question is what this means for the future curriculum and skills. What are jobs post-pandemic and post-Brexit going to look like? They’re certainly not going to look how they did twelve months ago. What happens to our travel, tourism and hospitality sector, for example? These are all things we are focusing on and need to address.

Has the coronavirus pandemic led to a change in the skills and/or qualifications businesses are looking for?

There are some great examples of this. In the construction industry, for example – where you might think digital literacy isn’t as important – we are now considering the shape of construction of the future and more sustainable methods of building. The green agenda very much impacts on the way we think about architecture and constructions materials of the future.

The same discussion is happening around motor vehicles and today’s focus has changed to electric. And where we have our Rail Academy, we need to be thinking about hydrogen trains of the future.

We’ve been having some very interesting conversations around travel and tourism. What if tourism trends focus on staycations? How do we recalibrate the curriculum to adapt to a post-COVID world where more people are conscious about the impacts of travel, and might want to focus more on the UK as a holiday destination.

In short, the pandemic has caused us to reframe our curriculum so that it absolutely meets regional and employers’ needs. We need businesses to help shape this so we can provide them with graduates who are employable and have the right technical skills for a future world.

How can colleges and the education sector support the economic recovery of the North East?

Education is an important gap filler when people are unemployed, but to make it more than that we need to make sure we’re reskilling and up-skilling people. We need to understand what employers see as the skills gaps and educate people to fill them.

We also need to think about skills for the workplace, which many of our young people are simply not learning because they’re working from home. For a huge number of new school leavers and new graduates, their first job is in their bedroom. They’re not learning skills like how to contribute in meetings, how to take notes, how to respond to body language and other non verbal cues from managers and senior staff members. They’re not learning about the politics of the office.

It’s not just about the technical skills for the workplace, it’s also about making sure that young people are really ready to engage in a professional context. Again, we need employers to help us with that.

How can businesses in the North East work more closely with NCG?

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve repurposed Rye Hill House so it now houses our Apprenticeship Hub, Enterprise Hub and our new Synergy Hub.

The Synergy Hub is where we really want employers from the Newcastle and Gateshead area to come in and interact with our staff, students, and curriculum developers so they’re helping us deliver the right curriculum to match the business need.

We are looking at being far more open and inviting employers to come in and really be at the heart of the curriculum offer. We want to work in partnership with businesses and big employers to create national apprenticeship schemes with lots of options for different qualifications at different levels.

Further education is being mooted as the key to economic recovery post Brexit and post-COVID. But we can’t be the key to economic recovery if we aren’t doing it in partnership with employers. For me, having employers at the heart of what we do, what we plan, and how we deliver our curriculum, is absolutely essential.

We’re really keen for employers to contact us and talk to us about their wants, their needs, their ideas, and we will do our level best to work in partnership to deliver them.

How is NGC supporting the call for a green recovery from COVID-19, inline with government’s green industrial revolution and the UK’s target to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

We’re doing it in two ways; one, as an employer of two and a half thousand staff across the country, and two, as an educator of forty five thousand students across the country.

We want to make sure that what we do as an employer and a workforce contributes to the net zero carbon emissions target. We want to travel less, we want to use less building space, and we want to be more innovative in the ways we engage with people.

We also want to teach the courses of the future that will enable our students to think greener and more sustainably. For example, opening up courses that focus on conservation, agriculture, woodland management, and considering how a green industrial revolution feeds into construction, automotive, rail, travel and tourism, and the food and catering parts of our offer.

How do we reframe our energy courses so they’re looking at more sustainable energy sources, like wind farming and subsea, and less at traditional methods?

So I think we do it both ways; by practicing what we teach by being a good workforce and a good employer, but also teaching what is needed to make sure this green revolution is supported by the FE sector.

Liz Bromley is CEO of leading national college group NCG.