College group discovers new and innovative ways of working through the COVID-19 crisis

Following the Government’s school and college closure announcement to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Education Partnership North East has ensured two of its college campuses have remained open for vulnerable students and children of key workers, and staff across the college group have worked tirelessly behind-the-scenes to move all operations online, share best practice and discover new and innovative ways of working.

Education Partnership North East, a dynamic college group which includes Sunderland College, Hartlepool Sixth Form and Northumberland College, had already been preparing for the government announcement to close schools and colleges with their proactive COVID-19 action group planning extensively for this eventuality.

The college group has been able to provide remote learning to its student community of over 21,000 young people and adults, staff have quickly adapted to virtual working and the college group continues to support the local community during this challenging time.

Staff are embracing new technology and are uploading learning activities to online learning platforms such as Moodle, Canvas, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. This has allowed students to continue their learning and will enable them to progress to the next stage of their educational journey. Adapting to individual learner needs, staff have also printed a range of paper-based resources for students, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities and those with high needs, as a blended approach to learning or to overcome economic home factors. With a strong focus on its students’ wellbeing, the Intensive Support team, which works across the whole college group, has been offering continued support to vulnerable students and also providing virtual counselling sessions, mediation and advice to their student community.

Expert support staff have been on-hand via Live Chat every weekday to answer queries and offer advice on a wide range of health and wellbeing issues affecting their students. The college group is enabling prospective students to continue to plan their future by transforming its planned on-site college open events to virtual open events using Live Chat and replacing face-to-face interviews for new applicants with telephone or Skype interviews.

During the virtual open events, visitors are able to connect with staff to find out about the extensive range of courses, from further education to higher education and distance learning to professional qualifications. They can also get advice on careers, funding, learning support and enrichment from specialist support staff, and remotely explore the college’s facilities with a virtual tour. Making a real difference in the local community, hundreds of items of essential PPE equipment have been donated by the college group to frontline staff at local NHS organisations. Sunderland College donated face masks, protective eye wear, coveralls and protective gloves to a local hospital trust and Hartlepool Sixth Form donated safety glasses, gloves, aprons and hand sanitiser to local GP surgeries.

To date, the 3D printer in the engineering department at Northumberland College has been printing continuously for 168 hours to produce PPE face shields for frontline workers. Students have also been making a positive impact with former Sunderland College health and social care student, 22-year-old Stacy Humphrey, preparing to join the A&E department at South Tyneside District Hospital just days after completing her nursing degree at the University of Sunderland. In addition, the college has produced engaging posts across its social media channels to provide updates on announcements and new remote college processes, plus positive messages with useful advice to keep students motivated, help them adapt to remote studying and to support their health and wellbeing.

Meanwhile at Northumberland College, staff have moved away from their families and into student accommodation to ensure the animals are well looked after. They are living in self-isolation at Kirkley Hall Zoo for three months to care for the 150 species of birds, reptiles and mammals.

Ellen Thinnesen, Chief Executive of Education Partnership North East, whose previous career was as a qualified nurse working across various NHS trusts, said: “As soon as we were informed of the college closure announcement, the college group was in a strong position to move to remote working to ensure continued high levels of student participation and engagement.

“There have been excellent examples of creative practices for remote working across the college group over the last few weeks and our staff are using new technology to its full potential and have found new and more effective ways of working.

“Our strong culture and professional values ensure that students are at the heart of everything we do. I’m extremely proud of the dedication and commitment of our staff to continue to offer an exceptional student learning experience and the vital service that many staff are providing to vulnerable young people and children of key workers on and off site. “As a college group we remain strong and positive and, despite the challenges, we have seen this as an opportunity to reflect, review and innovate.”

Throughout these unprecedented times, Education Partnership North East is continuing to adapt, innovate and transform lives, while making a positive difference to the communities that it serves.