AS education emerges cautiously from a challenging 18 months dominated by COVID, the focus must be on “retaining the positives”, according to South Lanarkshire College Depute Principal Stella McManus.
“A ‘new normal’ is the phrase much of the sector is using, because things have changed significantly as a result of the pandemic,” she explains.
“What we want to do, however, is focus on some of the positive changes that happened because of Covid – the advantages of blended learning, for example; more innovative and creative ways of engaging with students; and the development of more platforms to address mental health and wellbeing.”
Ms McManus adds: “These are all positives and they will not simply disappear because we are no longer in lockdown. One of the biggest advantages, I believe, is the way in which mental health is being spoken about much more openly. It has become much less of a stigma. It’s very important to us to build on what we have achieved in that area, and to keep adapting the way we work to ensure we continually engage with and motivate students.”
With the move to more digital learning, the team at South Lanarkshire College has noticed an increase in the number of adults keen to take advantage of part-time courses they can complete at home.
Ms McManus explains: “Evening and part-time courses, the vast majority of which can be done online with the exception of occasional progress reviews and support sessions, work well for students who are perhaps coming home from work or have childcare responsibilities, and want to study in the comfort of their own homes.
“This is suitable for theory courses, such as business, for example, rather than practical ones which require more face-to-face teaching. The feedback we have had from students undertaking these online courses has been overwhelmingly positive.”
South Lanarkshire College offers more than 200 courses to 5000 students across three faculties: Business, Construction and Care, catering for everyone from senior phase pupils and those with significant barriers to learning through to third year degree level students.
Ms McManus joined the management team in December last year, after 17 years working in education in London.
“Since returning to Scotland, I have noticed that the funding model is not as flexible as the sector needs it be in order to allow colleges to respond quickly and in an agile manner to labour market demand,” she says.
“The Scottish Funding Council has completed a review of tertiary education which has included setting out the strengths of Scotland’s colleges and universities, the challenges they face over the coming years and puts forwards recommendations to continue to secure good outcomes for current and future students. Their recommendations are currently with the Scottish Government and it will be interesting to see what happens next.”
Ms McManus adds: “While we have excellent relationships with employers, the lack of flexibility can make it challenging to be as responsive to their needs.
“After COVID, a huge number of people are seeking retraining or upskilling. It will be an interesting few months as we hear what the Scottish Government has to say and how the college sector responds to it.”
How South Lanarkshire College engages with employers in training and progressing employees is a key focus for the year ahead, says Ms McManus.
“The question is – how are we getting students work ready?” she explains.
“This is a question which encompasses much more than qualifications.
“How are we equipping students with resilience and adaptability, and giving them the skills to debate responsibly, to articulate the kind of questions employers should absolutely be thinking about: what is this business doing to tackle climate change? What are this company’s ethics?
“If an employee sees someone being bullied, or is aware of an injustice, how does he or she call that out in a professional way? The workplace environment is changing faster than ever before, and resilience, for all students, whether they are young people or adults developing their skills, is essential.”
Ms McManus believes extending the requirement of a work placement to all courses would be a significant advantage.
“Currently, it is not compulsory undertake a work placement across all programmes, unless you are studying for example childcare or healthcare qualifications, but I would like to see that introduced,” she says.
“In England, it is the case that all 16 to 18-year-olds must complete a relevant work placement as part of a college qualification and I believe it makes a huge difference in terms of helping students become ‘work ready’.”
She adds: “We need to focus on a different kind of partnership model, based on employer needs. We are also looking at our relationship with schools, emphasising what colleges expect from the senior phase pupils who come to us, the basic skills and qualifications, for example, and asking – what are the gaps we can help fill?”
There are challenges ahead post-COVID, acknowledges Ms McManus, but there is optimism across the college sector.
“The Scottish Government is taking a cautious approach towards education and that is understandable as there remains a great deal of anxiety,” she adds.
“It is fantastic to be back, however, and to see students in the building and hear the buzz of things returning to normal.”
She smiles: “The campus is a much happier place with students here.”