College FAQs on COVID-19

Here you can find answers to many questions that we have had from colleges. This will be updated as events develop. 

If you have any additional queries please contact AoC via

Updated on Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Q1. Who counts as a vulnerable student

The official advice is that vulnerable children include: those who have a social worker and those with an educational health and care plan (EHCP) – a legal document that describes a child’s special educational needs and the support they require.

Children who do not fall into these two groups should remain at home with "appropriate care". DfE say that nurseries, private schools and sixth forms should also follow this guidance.

This definition does not include those on free school or college meals (16% of the college 16-to-18 population) just a much narrower group (perhaps 4% on average). Government guidance can be accessed here.

Q2. How can colleges stay open for such a small group of students

This really hasn’t been worked out properly by DfE and we need to see what can be worked out in the coming days. The Education Secretary clearly said yesterday that provision might not be able to be delivered in the same place that people are used to. Colleges should discuss with local authorities in the first instance and it may be that some colleges will be able to act as ‘centres’ for school pupils who need to be looked after whilst parents carry out vital jobs.

We know that many colleges have been working out remote, home learning plans for all their students with those over 16 on EHCPs have been offered telephone access both to safeguarding managers and pastoral support and we need to see if that can work.

AoC has raised concerns with DfE about risks that local authorities will pull funding if EHCPs change. We’re taking this up.

Q3. What about students on free college meals?

DFE hasn’t yet changed the rules but a short-term measure for Monday is probably to pay into bank accounts or even cash pending, setting up proper systems for the week that follows. The existing rules already allow colleges to pay vouchers to be used in college or local food outlets. Supermarket vouchers would be a reasonable extension to this. Keep records.

Q4. Who counts as a key worker

If your work is critical to the COVID-19 response then you are counted as a key worker; this includes those who work in health and social care and in other key sectors outlined below:

  • Local and national government
  • Food and other necessary goods
  • Public safety and national security
  • Transport
  • Utilities, communication and financial services

There is a fuller description on the GOV.UK website (updated 19 March).

The aim here is really about allowing people in these roles to focus on their job. It is less clear that their 16 or even 14-year-old children have the same needs as younger (primary age) children. We’ll take this up.

In Wednesday’s briefing for representative organisations, the Skills Minister made three extra requests of colleges:

  • To work with organisations in the area on these issues (in a national crisis, this is the time to set aside differences) because the college might be a good place for resources to be focused and lots of children, not necessarily only college students, to be looked after.
  • To try to keep college nurseries open to maintain local provision - and to take on children of key workers.
  • To try to provide a continuous service (including staying open over the Easter break.

It should go without saying that the health advice (7 day self isolation with symptoms, 14 day household isolation for any family members, social distancing for those with severe asthma, diabetes etc) means some students need to stay at home for everyone else’s interests.

Q5. What exactly is happening with A-levels, GCSEs and other qualifications

There were slightly mixed messages yesterday but, having rejected a decision to postpone GCSEs and A-levels to September 2020, the government (at Wednesday’s Cobra meeting) decided to cancel actual exams but to make alternative arrangements for assessment and certification. This is a very recent decision. DfE, Ofqual and the awarding bodies are now working on what this actually means (for example will A-level certificates be, in some way, based on predicted grades). The priority is the qualifications taken in the largest numbers across the country (GCSEs and A-levels) but Ofqual is working with awarding bodies and organisations like AoC on all other regulated qualifications. We know that this includes all of the on-going assessments which affect lots of college students.

There will obviously be knock-on effects in the summer and September on recruitment and resits etc but the priority now are the immediate issues.

Q6. What about external assessments that were scheduled for today (Thursday afternoon), tomorrow (Friday) or next week?

It’s a local decision. Whatever you decide, I’m sure you’ll be backed.

Q7. What if there are further lockdowns (for example in London)?

The plans will need to adapt to the next set of decisions.

Q8. What is being done on funding, for example adult education budget tolerance?

Senior DfE and ESFA officials have confirmed several times this week to us that they understand the issues set out for them in David Hughes’ Tuesday 17th letter and that they are working on arrangements to take these into account. The AEB and 16 to 19 study programme money is already committed and can be paid on profiles, so that is relatively easy for DfE to pay and for tolerances on actuals to be very relaxed, to reflect the closures.

Q9. If government doesn’t act soon, my college will run out of money

ESFA, the banks and the FE commissioner team are all aware of this risk and AoC is working with key people in what is a very fast changing and new environment. Colleges need to keep managing their cashflow and work through whether this is a risk that crystallises in April, summer or later. We have suggested to ESFA that they bring forward the April 16-to-18 profile payment to 3rd April but it may be too hard to make this change at short notice. Everyone is assessing the risks including the FE commissioner team finance specialists who (instead of normal work) are pulling together information on which colleges are most at risk and when issues arise. College finance staff need to work on this. ESFA and we are also talking to banks to urge their support.

Q10. What about colleges that cannot simply close because they are land-based, have residential students or other issues?

Colleges have been asked to close as part of a national public health measure but college leaders have the authority (for the moment) to make the decisions that make the most sense in the circumstances. A few colleges this week closed because of mass staff absence when the government said institutions should stay open.  Likewise colleges with dairy farms, zoos etc or with international and domestic students still in residence need to make decisions that support national objectives in a way that prioritises student and staff safety.

Advice for educational establishments with residentail settings can be found here.

Q11. I’ve read to the end and you haven’t answered the most important question

We’ll keep this list updated as further guidance and news is announced.

For additional queries, please contact AoC on 0207 034 9900 or email

DfE is encouraging people to use the email address for queries, but please email us if there are other issues.