Urgent letter to government: supporting colleges through COVID-19

17 Mar 2020

This morning, Chief Executive David Hughes wrote to the Department for Education, Education and Skills Funding Agency, and the Opposition, setting out the urgent actions that need to be taken, and the things that need to be considered in order to protect colleges. This letter was drafted after conversations with many members across the country. This is not a definitive list because priorities and issues will evolve as the situation changes. We will reflect those changes in our conversations and communications over the coming days and weeks.

Below is a copy of the main body of the letter and here is the letter and notes in full. Please do feel free to forward on to your local MP and stakeholders, it is intended to be an open letter.

If there is anything that you think we need to consider, or would like us to raise with government, opposition and Departments, please do let me know. These are unprecedented times, where collaboration and open dialogue between the sector will be key.

Letter sent to the Secretary of State on Tuesday 17 March 2020

Dear Secretary of State,

Colleges and COVID-19

I am writing with information about the impact of COVID-19 on colleges, their students and staff and with a list of urgent requests. College leaders are seeking certainty about how they should respond and for assurances of financial support as a matter of urgency.

We are working with your officials on this matter, but I thought it would be useful to put the issues together into a single letter.

Every college is implementing its emergency planning procedures, working to the Government's advice, monitoring staff and student illnesses and absences and making decisions which are right for their circumstances. It is difficult to put an accurate figure on the financial impact, but it would be fair to suggest that an average college might lose between £500k and £1million per month of temporary closure or reduced capacity; very few, if any, will be able to cope without Government support.

They are acting responsibly, working hard to support the safety and security of their students, but seek assurances and requests which are now very urgent:

  • Funding: Colleges seek assurance that Adult Education Budget (AEB), study programme, apprenticeship and other DfE/ESFA income, wherever possible, can be guaranteed for the coming months;
  • Emergency financial support: AoC are asking DfE/ESFA to provide simple, rapid and clear routes for colleges to be able to seek and secure cashflow support. Colleges with low cash balances, large student fee income or employer-funded training will be at particular risk;
  • Temporary closures: In the absence of an instruction from the Government for all colleges to close, college leaders seek assurance that they will be supported in any local decisions to close a college or a campus which are taken in the light of the circumstances. These will include high numbers of staff in social isolation or in vulnerable categories who require social distancing; or outbreaks of the virus amongst staff and/or students; advice from Public Health England and so on. Given the nature of colleges, any temporary closures are likely to be time-limited and partial.  
  • Regulation: The decision by Ofsted to suspend all inspections is welcome, and should be followed swiftly by assurances that data, performance tables, targets and the like will also be suspended for the next few months.

As many colleges face up to tough decisions about closing their colleges, it may be sensible to discuss a longer Easter shutdown, starting early and/or carrying on for longer to allow for colleges to protect core services and to ready themselves for what looks likely to be a long haul.

I appreciate that this is a difficult time for everyone, including the Government, but I look forward to some quick announcements which allow college leaders to make the right decisions for their communities, students and staff, safe in the knowledge that the DfE and ESFA will support them through this crisis. At times like this we need to provide as much assurance as we can to people at the sharp end to be able to make decisions quickly, often with limited information, safe in the knowledge that they will be judged for their best intentions, not for any mistakes they might make.

Yours Sincerely,

David Hughes,

Chief Executive, Association of Colleges