As we finally look to be emerging from a two-year global Pandemic, ColegauCymru Chief Executive Iestyn Davies reflects on the challenges faced by our further education learners here in Wales, and those still to come.
During 2020 and 2021, ColegauCymru along with our member colleges, our colleagues at Welsh Government and other stakeholders, came together to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning and to provide the best possible support for both learners and staff during what turned out to be an unprecedented time. We worked closely with Welsh Government to secure additional funding for the FE sector, which enabled our colleges to, amongst other things, support vulnerable and at-risk learners and provide additional devices to tackle digital exclusion in a newly remote learning environment.
Recognition of challenges faced by learners
In March 2021, we were encouraged by the Senedd Children and Young People and Education Committee’s recognition that young people’s wellbeing needed to be at the centre of Covid19 recovery. Recommendations included supporting the most disadvantaged young people along with those with additional learning needs.
In Autumn 2021, we further welcomed the insight provided by Audit Wales as they reviewed the issues facing the FE sector and the challenges faced by learners. The A Picture of Higher and Further Education report looked at the impact of Covid19 on post-compulsory learning. It highlighted key areas of concern and how learners as well as institutions have adapted to the impact of the pandemic. The findings further showed that the most negative effect was experienced by vocational learners, particularly at lower qualification levels, and those who were already vulnerable due to deprivation, circumstances at home or learning disabilities.
Summer 2021 saw ColegauCymru commission independent research which found active wellbeing to be hugely beneficial across all aspects of college life. Two reports investigated the effects of the Covid19 pandemic on sport and wellbeing in FE colleges across Wales and was deemed by Sport Wales as being vital research which informed the sector about ways in which we could all pull together to offset further negative impact.
As such, we were delighted to receive news of project funding from Welsh Government which would be used to support further education settings to promote physical, mental, emotional wellbeing through increased access to creative, sporting and cultural activities. The funding forms part of the Renew and Reform Plan and is designed to support the cohort of young people who have been adversely affected as a direct result of the Covid19 pandemic. Our programme of events is scheduled to begin in March 2022 and will have a strong focus on supporting these learners.
It’s hugely important for us to remember that the challenges brought about by the pandemic will have longer term consequences for younger learners who may not be entering the post-16 setting for some time to come. It is widely understood that the early childhood education cohort, for example, have been negatively impacted in terms of their social, emotional and behavioural development and mental health, physical development and school readiness. Challenges at these early stages of life could have a detrimental effect on education later. Some learners may have missed out on opportunities to develop and maintain their Welsh language skills which will need to be addressed as part of the ongoing challenge of reaching a million Welsh speakers by 2050. ColegauCymru is committed to increasing awareness of these challenges and help in the provision of practical solutions as we move forward.
Looking to the future
It has been hugely encouraging to see the FE sector in Wales work together quickly and efficiently to provide young people with the support they deserve to be able to excel and achieve, albeit during uncertain times.
There is however still a way to go. Parity of esteem between academic and vocational learner attainment remains a considerable concern. Our priority remains the health, safety and progression of learners. With sufficient and sustained funding and support, the FE sector in Wales can be a valuable tool to help our post-16 learners to thrive and succeed in a post-Covid world. We’re committed to continuing to work closely with Welsh Government and other stakeholders to ensure the successful delivery of post-compulsory education and training to our young people, providing them with every opportunity to become citizens making valuable and valued contributions to our communities and economy.