Colleges across the dynamic Education Partnership North East group are providing thousands of young people across the North East with access to vital support and resources following the COVID-19 outbreak.

The group, which includes Hartlepool Sixth Form, Northumberland College and Sunderland College, established protocols to ensure its vulnerable students would be supported as part of risk assessments and planning for business continuity, prior to the government announcement.

The organisation was well prepared to initiate home support programmes as soon as face-to-face learning was to be suspended for most students across England.

Those who are affected by safeguarding concerns, young carers or parents, care experienced students and those with disabilities can continue to attend face-to-face sessions at specified College campuses or are able to remain in regular contact with their designated support officer via telephone, email or Live Chat to ensure they remain connected during the lockdown period. Across the three colleges, 150 students continue to receive intensive one-to-one support for existing personal or emotional support needs, despite the lockdown.

In addition, the Information Services and Student Support teams are available Monday to Friday to answer queries and concerns engaging in almost 200 chats in the first two weeks of closure, committing a total of 60 hours ensuring that any new support needs can be identified and acted on quickly.

Going beyond student engagement in remote teaching and learning, the group has sustained a comprehensive programme of participation focused on the social, emotional and developmental needs of individual students. Tutor support and guidance has continued across the colleges, engaging over 5,500 students in weekly in individual digital or telephone-based meetings. These meetings mirror the typical personal development activities that would occur if the colleges were operating normally, and ensure students are progressing with their studies and have the resources needed.

The team are also seeing an increasing number of family related issues arising through this period of global and national challenge resulting in students moving to alternative accommodation, with the College’s Intensive Support Officers acting quickly to confirm the safety of the students and offer financial and tailored advice where needed.

Following the lockdown, the College has further supported over 130 students remotely through one-to-one counselling for a range of issues including mental health or financial concerns delivered by the Intensive Support Team.

Nicola Warburton, Head of Student Experience, said: “One of our students had a disagreement with a parent, which led to a relationship breakdown.

“The tutor was unable to make contact with the student and knew that this young person was known to the Safeguarding Team. Our Intensive Support Officer immediately stepped in and was able ensure the student was safe and had suitable alternative accommodation.

“The Intensive Support Officer referred the student to a support worker who made the necessary checks, provided relevant external contact numbers and access to financial support.”

The Intensive Support Team has also recorded a high number of young parents who are finding it increasingly difficult adjusting to a new way of life and looking after their children following the closure of nurseries and schools. The college team are always available to ensure those who may be struggling personally, are able to receive support from the College’s counselling team directly, or through managed referrals to other support networks.

Nicola added: “Another of our students, a young parent who is in weekly contact with our Intensive Support Officers, admitted that they were struggling due to living with additional pressures.

“Daily contact is now being made with the student to carry out welfare checks and a counselling appointment was made and delivered the same day.”

A lack of interaction is one of the greatest impacts on mental health, with the colleges seeing a rise in anxiety and stress. A student who has been struggling while their key worker parent was away from home has been invited to one of our campuses with taxi costs being paid as well as tailored curriculum support being put in place.

Another member of the Intensive Support team, Jonathan Bell, said: “Our team members are going above and beyond to ensure all our safeguarding and vulnerable students are well supported during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“The positive impact the team are having on the lives of young people during such a time is second to none – an asset to Education Partnership North East.”

As part of its dedication to ensuring that studies can continue for everyone, students are accessing online learning platforms such as Moodle, Canvas, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom where staff are uploading learning activities, tasks and ensuring students’ progress their studies with clear deadlines.

A large amount of learning has been delivered online. So far, almost 120 students have loaned electronic devices such as laptops after teams quickly identified gaps in home resources and were able to distribute devices not in use within the colleges.

Impressed with the innovative approach, a parent of a supported student, said: “It’s really great that the college is keeping in contact with students. The communication is excellent.

“Work is getting sent through and my daughter has completed three assignments so far including maths and English work, with her lecturer phoning to discuss what she has submitted and explain what needed correcting.”

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have taken on a greater role with Sport Activators and Youth Work Teams from across the colleges hosting exercise videos featuring daily challenges and wellbeing advice to encourage students to engage with each other while improving their physical and mental health.

Students preparing for life after college, whether at university or in employment, are also being supported with colleges’ careers team offering remote advice and guidance through online workshops including interview techniques and information about apprenticeships.

Students are actively engaged in progression activities using Unifrog, an online tool which helps young people find the best options for their future after college, while also receiving remote support with student finance and accommodation through Microsoft Teams.

“Our Careers’ Advisors are working non-stop to further enhance our virtual learning environments with activities for students,” added Nicola. “They are developing career focused information, advice and guidance sessions to be delivered live after the Easter break, while supporting anxious students with the uncertainty of their next steps.

“The team have embraced new technology over the past few weeks and are continuously seeking new methods to engage our students.”

The colleges’ Higher Education Transition Team are also working in collaboration with Student Experience staff to reassure students concerned about their grades, explaining how they will be calculated following the cancellation of exams.

Vikkie Morton Vice Principal at Education Partnership North East said: “Since the national lockdown, we have maintained our commitment to supporting our most vulnerable students and our support teams have worked tirelessly to ensure they stay connected and have the help and support they need.

“These are challenging times for everyone and I’m immensely proud of the teams’ dedication to ensure our students stay safe and are supported.

“They are dedicated to ensuring that studies and support continue for everyone, keeping in touch with students over the phone and providing online support, resource platforms and group sessions.”

Why Education Partnership North East (EPNE)?

Highly commended - Employer of the Year, Sunderland Echo Portfolio Awards 2019

Engagement with Employers - Association of Colleges (AoC) Beacon Award 2017

(Sunderland College On-programme Survey 2017)

Selected by DfE for 2021 T Level pilot to deliver the new high-quality technical qualifications.

98% overall employer satisfaction - Employer Survey 2018/19