The Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills has paid a virtual visit to one of the largest colleges in the North East and praised its innovative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MP Gillian Keegan was invited to remotely visit Sunderland College on Thursday 11th June, to meet staff and students and to see first-hand how the college has moved their learning online and implemented strategies to ensure students are supported during this challenging time.

Ms Keegan is the MP for Chichester and is herself a former apprentice. She was elected to parliament for the first time in 2017. She said:

Apprenticeships and Skills Minister Gillian Keegan said:

“It was wonderful to virtually meet so many students and staff and hear first-hand the fantastic job Sunderland College has done to successfully move learning online. I was really impressed by the innovative steps taken by staff to support learners during this difficult period.

“Such high levels of engagement, 93% for 16-18-year-olds and 100% for all adult and higher education classroom-based provision, are a real testament to the hard work and commitment of the college staff to make sure their students have the skills and support they need to succeed.”

Welcomed by Chief Executive of Education Partnership North East, Ellen Thinnesen, the minister’s visit began with an introduction to Rob Lawson, Chair of Governors, and other key staff and students at the college. She was then given a video demonstration of the vision and strategic plan for Education Partnership North East, the college group which also includes Hartlepool Sixth Form and Northumberland College.

Minister Keegan heard from Interim Deputy Principal, Judith Quinn, who explained about the college’s career-focused curriculum and how it develops the next generation of career ready students by preparing them for further study or employment, with a 98% positive progression last academic year.

Following this, Group Vice Principal Student Services and Registry, Vikkie Morton, highlighted the innovative ways in which the college is supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged students during Covid19 and Iain Nixon, Group Vice Principal Partnerships and Commercial, provided an overview of the college’s continuing partnership work with employers and its contribution to the regional economy.

Next, the minister virtually visited the college’s Art Academy to observe the college’s digital and creative provision. She met Faculty Director Jane Reed and NextGen lecturer Matt Hall who teaches on the games, animation and VFX courses. Like other teaching staff at the college, Matt has vast industry experience and is an accomplished 2D and 3D artist, animator and indie games developer.

With the help of three of his students – Jonah Kirtley, Keith Wilkinson and James Binns – Minister Keegan observed how students have been engaged in online technical learning and was able to view industry standard learning resources and the production of technical work produced by each of the students.

Matt said:

“I’ve been teaching on the NextGen study programme here for the past five years. Our technical curriculum has gone from strength to strength, and is constantly evolving through industry informed practice. We work with students using industry standard tools and workflows to build up highly professional technical skills that are directly translated into the workplace. In addition, our staff delivery team is comprised of technical specialists with a passion for the digital and creative industries, which helps create real experiences for students.”

17-years-old James Binns, who studies Level 3 Games Design, Animation and Visual Effects at Hartlepool Sixth Form, explained about his positive remote learning experience to the Minister and how he took part in a 3D gamer Worldskills competition during lockdown.

James also told the minister that he chose a games design study programme because he had always loved playing games and wanted others to experience the joy he felt when he played them. The study programme has provided James with the opportunity to learn the process of designing and modelling games and he hopes to progress to university and become a 3D modeller

The minister was then entertained with a live virtual performance by Olivia Glover, who sang At Last by American blues and soul artist Etta James.

Eighteen-year-old Olivia is in the final year of her Level 3 Extended Diploma Music study programme and will be progressing to a Foundation Degree in Music at the college in September.

Olivia, who is a part-time singing and song-writing teacher and also performs with her band and as a solo artist, said:

“Singing is not just about the performance, it is more a passion. I decided to progress onto higher education at Sunderland College in order to pursue my passion and continue to develop and learn new skills that encompass me as an individual.”

Last summer, Olivia won the City of Sunderland Young Achievers Award for the third time for her commitment and hard work during her studies.

To conclude the virtual visit, the Minister spoke to the Principal of Northumberland College, Nigel Harrett, who detailed how the college had proactively responded to the challenges of COVID-19 and

Ellen Thinnesen discussed the future opportunities for the education sector. Ellen said:

“We were delighted to be able to share our successful switch to virtual learning with 93% of 16-18-year olds positively engaging and planning to continue their study with us next year.

“I was also pleased to be able to share our plans for prestigious T-Level delivery and how the college is preparing for new and innovative approaches to technical skills delivery through a number of enabling new technologies.

“I discussed with Minister Keegan, that the key to our transformation has been driven through the college’s strong culture and the dedication and commitment of our workforce in ensuring our students, their success and progression remain our primary focus.”

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