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Colleges are key to re-engaging Covid’s ‘lost generation’ in education, employment or training

Colleges are the obvious one-stop-shop for re-engaging disenfranchised young people after Covid and bridging the UK’s skills gaps, says Karen Johnson

It’s a little over three years since the beginning of a wave of lockdowns to combat the Covid pandemic. By now many of us are back to business as usual. But for a whole generation of young people whose education and early career opportunities have been stifled the journey has not been quite so smooth. 

According to a recent report from City & Guilds, there are over 800,000 young people in the UK who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). While this figure is shocking to some, we educators know all too well that young people have been among the hardest hit by the devastating aftershocks of that period. 

In response, we need nothing less than a seismic shift in how we think about education. It’s no longer a case of retaining our students, but of reintegrating them and offering them a much-needed second chance. 

Implementing programmes nationally to capture the nearly 16 per cent young people currently classified as NEET is not without its complications. The government’s spring budget recognised the role that economically inactive people could play in filling the 1.3 million vacancies in our economy today. However, consistent underfunding means that existing services and programmes are already under immense strain, and not operating at the scale required to solve the problem.

One such programme is NEET re-engagement programme at Leeds City College, which aims to improve young people’s skills while helping them prepare for their next steps. Further education colleges are unique in their ability to provide a ‘one-stop shop’ for careers advice, pastoral support, education and work experience. Other organisations offer some of these services, but it’s rare to find one that has it all.

Our bespoke programme helps students aged 16 to 24 to develop skills in essential subjects, particularly maths and English, all while engaging them in enrichment activities and supporting them with progression. 

The move to online learning during the pandemic deepened the chasm of access to quality education. For some of our most vulnerable young people, the amount of lost learning was substantial, leaving them wholly unprepared for further education or employment. In crafting and delivering our programme, we focus on removing such barriers.

We need a seismic shift in how we think about education

It’s not just in the classroom that young people are facing struggles. Mental health charity, Young Minds reported in 2021 that 67 per cent believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. Issues of low self-confidence have been directly linked to long periods of social isolation; I’ve had countless young people tell me they simply don’t feel up to the challenge of employment. 

One of the young people on our programme had always dreamed of pursuing a career in creative arts, but was too anxious of being around so many people after lockdowns to pursue their ambition. This example is repeated everywhere across the country.

We often think of young people as highly social, but in reality the thought of stepping back into a classroom for the first time in over two years has been undeniably overwhelming. We are fortunate enough to have a smaller facility that can host our programme, and have implemented shorter session times to make them more manageable. 

But by far the most common barrier is finance, with the rising cost of living meaning many young people are undertaking temporary, part-time work at the expense of their studies. As part of the programme, students are offered meal cards and free bus passes to minimise cost and support with their responsibilities outside of the programme. 

Even in its infancy, I’ve seen this programme make a real difference to those who had nowhere else to turn, and with 14 new referrals already this month, it’s clear there’s demand. Like many others across the sector, we are proud of the work we’re doing and we know more needs to be done.

Put simply, the UK’s labour market cannot afford to disregard the potential of so many. Colleges are a natural place to invest in the multi-faceted work this challenge requires, and failure to reengage those who do not currently have the resources to fulfil their potential constitutes a huge missed opportunity for policy makers.

Leeds Conservatoire receives over £1.6m from government sustainability scheme

Leeds Conservatoire, a member of Luminate Education Group, has been awarded over £1.6m to make environmental improvements to its building. 

The money has been provided by the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme; a Department for Energy Security and Net Zero initiative to help reduce carbon emissions across the country.

Leeds Conservatoire will be using the funds to replace old gas fire boilers, install double glazing and LED lighting, and replace its air heating and cooling systems.

Professor Joe Wilson, Principal at Leeds Conservatoire, said: “We take sustainability seriously and are pleased that these funds will help to reduce the conservatoire’s carbon footprint.

“We’re committed to becoming a net zero organisation by 2035, as outlined in Luminate Education Group’s newly launched Climate Emergency and Sustainable Development Pledge.”

Luminate Education Group’s institutions operate across multiple campuses plus smaller centres and community venues, with a substantial collective carbon footprint. 

The organisation’s Group Vice Principal for Development, David Warren, said: “This investment is important to us as we strive to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions across the group. We have already been making our campuses more energy efficient – through building improvements, waste reduction and energy generation, and are working on sustainable travel plans.

“We are also embedding sustainability into our curriculum, for example through offering carbon literacy training to all our students and staff, and increasing our green skills provision to support local employers as they embrace emerging technologies.

“We will be partnering closely with local organisations, businesses and community groups that value sustainability too, so we can coordinate our efforts and maximise the results.”

For more information about Leeds Conservatoire, visit www.leedsconservatoire.ac.uk 

Leeds City College's Assistant Principal Creative Arts, Richard Lee

Insights into STEAM power

Leonardo da Vinci once gave this piece of advice: “To develop a complete mind: study the science of art. Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.”

Of course not everyone can grasp the intricacies of diverse disciplines as exceptionally as the great Italian renaissance polymath. But we all, in more modest ways, draw upon mixtures of creative thinking and scientific, mathematical or technical knowledge in everyday tasks.

Leonardo’s quote is more than 500 years old but it has not really been heeded. In the worlds of education and funding, for example, the ‘interconnectedness of everything’ is far from being universally accepted, with ‘art’ and ‘technical’ subjects still fenced off into distinct areas. That old-fashioned view, particularly due to its funding implications, is harming students, innovation and the economy. Which is why we need to talk about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Maths).

A barrier to access and innovation

At our Quarry Hill campus, the arts are a vital part of what we do, with around 1,800 students pursuing creative subjects. But I’m an engineer, I have a BSc and have spent much of my working life in the backstages of theatres. Most of my time has been spent ‘doing maths’, even though I’ve been working in the arts.

When it comes to funding for courses, however, we still have this weird dichotomy based on divisions that really aren’t that clear-cut. At our campus we do have artists, like musicians and actors, but all around them, making it happen, are craftspeople, engineers, technicians and designers who need to be specialists in all kinds of science and maths.

And a number of subjects which have grown under the creative arts umbrella, like music production and photography, are also actually STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. Then there are fields like computer game design that require deep and complex technical knowledge but are still classed as arts courses, because there is a reluctance to see past outdated categories.

That way of thinking is problematic because it inhibits innovation and collaboration, encouraging people to ‘stay in their lane’. It also results, far too often, in funding help not being available to anyone aged over 18 if their chosen field is deemed to fall on the ‘arts’ side of the line. That has damaging implications both for potential students – by effectively financially blocking older learners – and a performing arts industry that is screaming out for qualified theatre technicians.

Fighting for progress

We have actually just received some great news on that front from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which has approved adult funding for our BTEC National Foundation Diploma in Production Arts Practice course. 

That is a real win, but backstage theatre is just an extreme example of a much wider problem. We need an understanding at the highest level about STEAM, and how the arts and STEM constantly overlap.

Rethinking the economic argument

Instead, the focus tends to be all about the value of purely technical subjects. Of course we do need more engineers and scientists, but that message is often accompanied with the idea that creative courses are somehow less useful.

That’s a dangerous concept, and inaccurate: the arts industry is one of the biggest and fastest growing in the UK, and we don’t want young people to think they can’t be creative.

Where would STEM professionals be without those alternative thinkers that help provide that spark of innovation? Look at a company like Apple, which is known for pioneering new designs –  it exists and flourishes because two people came together with very different, but complementary, skill sets.

Such success stories are perfect examples of STEAM in action. Our funding bodies, and politicians, would do well to learn from them when it comes to deciding which courses are worthy of financial support.

This thought piece by Richard Lee, our Assistant Principal of Creative Arts at Leeds City College, was recently published in The Yorkshire Post.

Leeds Conservatoire Receives Funding Boost from Office for Students

Leeds Conservatoire has been awarded a funding boost from the Office for Students (OfS): £1million per annum for academic years 2022/23 to 2026/27 in recognition of its specialist performing arts provision.

This funding is designed to improve access and teaching resources for contemporary music, drama and dance courses, and will support:

  • improved delivery of teaching and learning to students;
  • development of partnerships with other higher education providers, nationally and internationally, or relevant industries to improve study and career opportunities for students;
  • access to specialist performing arts education for students from underrepresented groups;
  • provision of specialist equipment for students, such as musical instruments, costumes or computing equipment.

In the funding announcement, Susan Lapworth, Chief Executive of the OfS, said: “The performing arts make a significant economic and cultural contribution to society. They enrich lives and create tens of thousands of jobs across the UK. Students choosing performing arts courses develop diverse skills and have a wide range of career opportunities.

“The OfS’s investment will ensure that current and future generations of students – whatever their background ​– are able to succeed during their studies and into their careers. The small size and highly specialised approach of the institutions we are funding play an important role in their educational experience of students, and this funding will ensure they can continue to deliver a high quality experience.

“We continue to invest in alternative routes into higher education to widen the opportunities available to every student. Today’s investment in degree apprenticeships and Level 4 and 5 qualifications will ensure that more can be done to extend the range of training available. We encourage universities and colleges to continue to develop and evaluate these courses to ensure students are equipped with the skills they need for their first or next career.”

Professor Joe Wilson, Principal at Leeds Conservatoire, added: “We are delighted to have been awarded this funding and that the OfS has acknowledged the significant economic and cultural contribution to society the performing arts make. Our graduates are in demand and work in a wide range of roles but what makes them truly distinctive is the multidisciplinary training and entrepreneurial spirit that places them at the forefront of their fields.”

Leeds City College and Keighley College have received funding to boost adult numeracy levels in West Yorkshire

Funding to boost adult numeracy skills in West Yorkshire

Two of our colleges have secured nearly £480,000 to boost adult numeracy skills in the region.

Leeds City College and Keighley College will receive just under £434,000 and £45,500 respectively via the Department for Education-led Multiply programme.

They will use the money to fund a multi-pronged push to raise standards among adults who don’t have a Level 2 qualification – roughly equivalent to a GCSE grade 4, or the old C grade – in maths.

The work will involve supporting learners through putting on new, flexible courses designed to fit around their lives, and training more staff to teach numeracy.

A practical focus

The focus will be on functional, rather than theoretical, maths to show how useful it can be in real-life situations ranging from budgeting for shopping to understanding borrowing, credit and interest.

Leeds City College’s Director of Adult Curriculum, Joanne Dye, said: “Everyone talks about how simple budgeting is, but many people find it hard even though it is an essential skill – and especially important now while we face a cost of living crisis.

“We are delighted to have secured funding to deliver this vital programme. We are committed to improving access to numeracy skills for adults in our region, and this programme is an important step in that direction.”

Addressing a costly skills gap

A 2022 report found that more than half – 52% – of adults in West Yorkshire were at ‘entry level and below’ in terms of numeracy. National Numeracy’s research, meanwhile, says low numeracy skills could be costing the UK up to £25 billion a year.

The Multiply programme – which is being funded over three years, with West Yorkshire Combined Authority distributing the finances – will seek to address the issue locally by reengaging adults with maths.

Leeds City College and Keighley College are already piloting a project that asks English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students to take on tasks like banking or supermarket shopping.

The programme will also open up new work and educational possibilities for participants, and take them a step closer to being able to benefit from further support such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

Making maths accessible to all

Luminate Education Group Vice Principal Ann Marie Spry, said: “We need to support those who still need to get Levels 1 and 2 in maths, and have a fear of the subject, to thrive in their personal and professional lives.

“Offering bespoke support, this programme will also help English for Speakers of Other Languages students who struggle with language barriers.

“We hope that through delivering the programme we can help adults in all walks of life develop improved financial skills; from planning their meals, or creating shopping lists and budgets, to understanding taxes and pensions.

“This will enable them to create a system to feel more financially secure, now and in the future.”

Multiply’s aims are part of a wider push by the government to improve and extend maths skills across the country, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently announcing his ambition to get everyone studying maths until the age of 18.

Leeds Conservatoire and British Youth Music Theatre Explore Inclusivity in New Musical Theatre

Leeds Conservatoire has teamed up with the British Youth Music Theatre (BYMT) to produce a new theatre production.

The show, titled The Steadfast Tin Soldier, will feature a cast of disabled and non-disabled young people.

BYMT’s mission is to create opportunities for young people and early career creatives from all backgrounds to develop theatre skills and enhance wellbeing, through the collaborative and inclusive process of making original musical theatre.

In line with Leeds Conservatoire, BYMT’s values include being inclusive and making everything they do accessible, taking responsibility for developing and nurturing collaborative processes.

Matthew Bugg, Senior Lecturer in Musical Theatre at Leeds Conservatoire, said: “It is enormously beneficial for creative team members, students and diverse artists to work in a safe context of learning, where questions can be asked and new approaches explored and evolved.

“This process and its evaluation will help Leeds Conservatoire’s Musical Theatre Department develop models for best practice that can be shared across the wider institution and across the sector.”

Conservatoire students from year one and two BA (Hons) Musical Theatre, plus MA Musical Theatre Company and MA Musical Theatre Creatives participated in the week of development. This was an opportunity to develop The Steadfast Tin Soldier and how the material could be presented in an authentic, inclusive and relevant way, experienced by deaf artists and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters were actively involved.

The creative team included Karen Mettam and Sarah Cox (BSL interpreters), Matthew Hinchcliffe (actor and BSL interpreter), Anthony Underwood (director and writer), Emily Gray (Chief Executive and Creative Director of BYMT) and Matthew Bugg.

Caroline Parker MBE led a participatory workshop that enabled students and staff to become more aware as to how to meet the access needs of Deaf and hearing impaired artists and audience members. This included learning how to begin the process of interpreting a song in sign language.

Sophie Braithwaite, a young Deaf performer and dance teacher from Deaf EXperience Limited (DEX) joined for the full development week. DEX is a youth organisation based in Halifax whose participants are all Deaf/hearing impaired.

On the final day, the wider DEX team was invited to attend the sharing of The Steadfast Tin Soldier and gave feedback on the development of the work.

Anthony Underwood, director and writer of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, shared how useful the week had been:

“I can’t express enough how amazing the students all were from start to finish. Their feedback and creativity were invaluable, and I am extremely proud of the conversations we had and the conclusion we came to for future development. It was beyond a helpful week.”

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