'I couldn't be more proud': Principal reflects on lockdown learning

East Coast College chief executive and principal, Stuart Rimmer.

East Coast College chief executive and principal, Stuart Rimmer. Photo: East Coast College - Credit: East Coast College

March 20 marks one year since our college community went online in the first national lockdown brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

It was without a doubt the saddest day of my leadership career.

Watching staff walking out loading boxes of work and pot plants into their cars, pipping horns as they left and seeing the college gates close really brought a rare tear to my eye.

But colleges are far more than buildings.

East Coast College's Lowestoft campus.

East Coast College's Lowestoft campus. Photo: East Coast College - Credit: East Coast College

Colleges are built from connections between people.

East Coast College's Great Yarmouth campus. Photo: East Coast College

East Coast College's Great Yarmouth campus. Photo: East Coast College - Credit: East Coast College

Last March we stepped into the greatest leadership challenge for a generation, combined with transferring a whole institution to working from home with little notice and simultaneously the largest pedagogical experiment since the Victorian era.

This created a pressure and fast change.

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So what have we learnt since then and what can we look back on with pride?

There are certainly plenty of headlines that would have us believe online education in some form is here to stay and, while that maybe so, there are still barriers to completely replicating our curriculum online.

Lockdown learning has also had a negative impact on the mental health of some staff and students, so any move towards greater online learning will need to be handled carefully.

In the absence of hard evidence that online learning is beneficial, and my own experiences to the contrary, I feel that the current rush to digital teaching and learning approaches are mostly distractive.

There has been a very rapid obsession with digital as a panacea and proxy for good teaching and learning, and I don't think there's evidence to suggest that's true.

We are working in this way because of necessity, not desirability.

At East Coast College it’s about which aspects of online learning we keep when we go back to ‘normal’ and the answer is we will augment, not replace face-to-face.

People say there are big rewards and that tech can make lessons more interesting and accessible, but there are too many big-ticket items in the way, chiefly digital poverty.

You can only participate in the digital world if you're rich enough.

No matter how good the teacher, how accomplished their digital delivery, or how good the digital platform, if someone is trying to learn on a mobile phone, it’s hard, and many in our region in rural and coastal communities can’t afford decent broadband or data packages.

At our college, around 15pc of 16 to 19-year-olds receive free school meals, and they don’t typically have a device in their home, or if there is one, it’s shared by three siblings and their parents on a poor broadband connection.

To help, we've delivered 700 laptops to students and stretched college finances in doing so.

In my view, digital poverty needs tackling before any push for digital curriculum transformation across the sector, even after we return to ‘normal’.

Another thing we can’t ignore is that many further education courses are practical.

Exclusive digital learning cannot produce good bricklayers, plumbers, hairdressers or chefs.

These disciplines are grounded in high technical skills and craft.

Our staff have been amazingly innovative and creative, but can’t wait to get back to face-to-face teaching in our on-site workshops, salons and kitchens.

Over the last two weeks, as we have returned to campus, the joy of staff and students coming together to learn has been both visceral and created a refreshed dynamism.

This will continue into the summer term.

As a college we can be incredibly proud of the way we have responded during such uncertain times.

Staff have gone out of their way to research and deliver sessions using technology they had never heard of a year ago, they’ve continued to inspire and support our students with their learning and progression as well as sharing best practices with their colleagues to ensure the best delivery college-wide.

Our students have been just as amazing, and during this time of challenge have even found the time to think of others in our community.

In the past 12 months our college has raised £2,000 and donated over 600 items to the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth foodbanks, students have created and sent wellbeing packs and postcards to local care homes, they’ve made scrubs for NHS workers, filled Christmas stockings with goodies and baked bread, cakes and pasta dishes to send to the less fortunate.

So yes, it has been challenging and I’m sure there will be more challenges to come as our country looks to return to ‘normal’.

But the achievements of our students, dedication of our staff and strength of our college community has shone through it all, and I couldn’t be more proud.

Stuart Rimmer, chief executive and principal of East Coast College in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth

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