PublicationsSystematic reviewsMitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the further education sector
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This report is one of a series of four on mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – please see the project page for more.
Mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the further education sector

What do we want to know?

The COVID-19 pandemic can be regarded as a unique and unprecedented event in the globalised world and can be regarded as being a ‘wicked problem’ in that its effects correspond to the main characteristics of wicked problems theory – notably multi-layered complexity, factor inter-dependency and unpredictable outcomes from standard interventions. 

The purpose of this rapid evidence review is to examine the research evidence about the harms and potential mitigations of the pandemic for the further education sector up to mid-2021. The review questions are: 

  1. Harms: What is the nature and extent of the UK FE Sector experience of harms reported in research on impacts of Covid 19?

  2. Mitigations: What systematic review evidence is there to mitigate these UK experienced harms in the research literature and those identified by those involved in the Sector?

Who wants to know?

The UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE) commissioned this work following a recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The review will be useful to a range of communities including policy makers, educational practitioners, employers, and students and their families. 

What did we find?

The UK Further Education (FE) sector includes general FE colleges, sixth-form colleges, work-based learning providers, adult institutes, and specialist and technical institutes. A wide range of FE students have therefore been impacted by institution closures and reduced access during the pandemic – both in terms of learning loss and also their general wellbeing, with particular challenges for those from more vulnerable and/or deprived communities. The review found evidence of impacts on: 

  • the uptake and completion of apprenticeships
  • the pursuit of vocational qualifications
  • vulnerable cohorts of FE students
  • the mental health and wellbeing of FE students

Suggested mitigations include:

  • Strategies aimed at helping students to catch up on their learning
  • Increasing the number of good quality apprenticeships – as well as multi-agency joined-up measures coordinated locally. 
  • Incentivising employers to provide high-quality apprenticeship programmes 
  • Systemic reforms of funding along with guarantees for all young people and adults of training provision. 
  • Personalised support packages could help support disadvantaged young people both into employment and in accessing post-16 education. 

What are the implications?

Questions that emerge from this assessment of the impact of the pandemic on the FE sector include:

  • What are the most urgent needs with regard to the UK’s apprenticeship schemes, given the highlighted declines in awareness, uptake and completion of such schemes during the pandemic?
  • To what extent has COVID-19 highlighted a growing gap between the FE and Higher Education sectors – including in terms of support for those from the most deprived backgrounds? For example, studies have highlighted that vulnerable FE learners were especially disadvantaged by the absence of close teacher support and the loss of study habit and discipline.

Are there particular challenges relating to increased levels of ‘blended learning’ in the highly vocational/practical FE sector (i.e. the introduction of more online, asynchronous learning, and less direct practical experience), and how should these be addressed?

How did we get these results?

This review is called a ‘rapid review’ to reflect the constraints in delivering a systematic review in a short space of time. Given the diversity and paucity of the empirical, quantitative literature, there are limitations to the confidence we can place in judgements of quality and the impact on the reliability of individual findings.

This rapid evidence review pulls together evidence from 53 studies on harms and ten systematic reviews of evidence on mitigation strategies relating to the impact of closures and disruption of Further Education institutions of all types during the pandemic. As some of these data were relatively weak, the review also drew on interviews with people from relevant organisations including colleges and examination bodies. 

This report should be cited as: Spours K, Grainger P, Vigurs C, France R (2021) Mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Further Education sector: a rapid evidence review. London: EPPI Centre, UCL Social Research Institute, University College London.

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