Back on course: how hospitality colleges are getting students back to school

13 August 2020 by

Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on hospitality education, but catering colleges have discovered innovative ways to keep teaching their students, as well as preparing them for the new normal. Tessa Allingham reports

In a YouTube video recorded for prospective hospitality students at City of Glasgow College, associate dean Gordon McIntyre delivered a measured but reassuring message.

He put no gloss on the "particularly tough time" suffered by hospitality during the on-going pandemic, or of the "crisis in the sector" Covid-19 triggered. But he was quick to deliver a rallying call both to young people starting college and those facing upheaval.

Now is the time to develop skills for life, he said, to upskill and retrain so that, when hospitality bounces back, the industry can recruit "well-qualified people – like you". He added: "You'll be better equipped to rejoin this caring, fun, amazing industry, which provides great job satisfaction [and] makes memories."

It is impossible to avoid the fact that college life – in Glasgow or elsewhere, and as a 16-year-old or ‘returner' – will be different from the one promised by prospectuses before coronavirus punched the stuffing out of hospitality. The story is inevitably a fluid and uncertain one as numbers on campus are adjusted in line with ever-changing social distancing guidelines, teaching ‘bubbles' are created, learning is ‘blended', and concerns about work experience provision nag. But it is also a story of resilience, the thrill of innovation and of reimagining learning for the digital era to make it as relevant, effective, adaptable, accessible and enjoyable as possible.

Adapt and change

After colleges closed in March, theory teaching instantly moved online, the best teachers quickly mastering the technology and adapting lessons. "On that Friday, we all left college, and by Monday we were at our kitchen tables, engaging with students remotely," says Richie Carter, hospitality course team leader at Milton Keynes College.

It was the same in Glasgow: "Overnight, we changed to online delivery," McIntyre recalls. "There were hassles, but we were already using [online platform] Moodle and our tech team quickly taught us about webinars, Google Drive, Zoom, how to edit videos, how to get multiple people on a call, and how to record ourselves and share. They were amazing. It's great because we know when and for how long the students log on for." It's great, too, for intuitively tech-savvy students, for whom digital communication is effectively an ‘old normal', and who often found themselves teaching their own lecturers.

"The shift has been huge," says Claire Waterson, events manager at the culinary arts academy at West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds. "It's given us a real shake-up. There's been a digital upskilling for teachers that we will definitely build on."

At first, engagement was stronger from motivated, older students – perhaps unsurprisingly – though Richard Axford, head of hospitality at Kendal College in Cumbria, says they all bought in eventually. "Initially, students thought lockdown was the Netflix-and-pyjamas dream, but once they realised it was for the long haul, they got stuck into studying.

"It's given us a real shake-up. There's been a digital upskilling for teachers that we will definitely build on"

We're a small college – we've got just 65 full-time learners, so we know them all well. We knew which ones to keep an eye on!

In Milton Keynes, Carter found engagement improved noticeably away from the classroom: "Students could learn in their own time and at their own pace. We carried on with the timetable, so 9am Mondays there was Level 3 hospitality services, and Tuesday at 9am I was in the kitchen at home teaching Level 1 and 2. I filmed myself doing demos, stewing, braising and grilling; I edited it, put it on YouTube and the students could watch the lesson as often as and whenever they wanted. I've missed the direct interaction, but teaching differently has been exciting – effective, too."

McIntyre tells the story of a student in Glasgow's George Square, following a lesson on her phone with her child in a pushchair: "Learning can happen 24/7, not just when a college timetable dictates." And, as Waterson jokes: "Snow days? A thing of the past!"

Pastoral care and support

Fears that a dependency on tech could highlight social differences as much as it improves accessibility are real, however. In Scotland, a government taskforce is working with colleges to offer (means-tested) laptops and WiFi access for entry-level students, and McIntyre is negotiating interest-free loans and reduced prices for quality equipment for advanced students. "We say we'll teach online, but that does assume every student has WiFi, a laptop and a place to study." In England, a means-tested bursary fund is available for 16- to 19-year-olds to cover the cost of essential equipment.

Keeping students' mental health strong was – and will continue to be – critical. "Especially in those early days," says Axford. "Suddenly they were living with family 24/7, some had laptops and WiFi, others didn't. We'd ring them every so often, check in. We used Microsoft Teams to set fun challenges – to make an omelette, a non-alcoholic cocktail, a risotto, to do some fitness. We were all learning as we went along."

Alan Pease, deputy principal at Suffolk New College, Ipswich, echoes this. "We've engaged with them throughout, reassured them. Teachers have had ‘how are you?' conversations, not just teaching ones. Sometimes students would just talk with us on Zoom; some were really worried about not passing modules."

Practical work

As colleges prepare for new teaching methods, interactions like these will be vital. A ‘blended' approach will combine online theory (followed off-site where possible) with practical work in college kitchens and restaurants – once they reopen – supplemented by whatever industry experience can be arranged.

Pease is "chomping at the bit". As elsewhere, risks have been assessed at Suffolk New College, rigorous cleaning regimes and sanitiser stations set up, spaces measured for social distancing purposes, numbers counted. "When they're on-site, students will be in bubbles," he says. "The size of the bubble will depend on the capacity of the room. In the kitchen, if each learner has a station to themselves they will be two metres apart, so that's not so difficult."

At West Suffolk College, the bubble will be either as a whole department and with dedicated classrooms, or in smaller groups of up to 20 students with an assigned lecturer. "We're looking at 50% of our students being here at any one time," says Waterson.

"It's the craft skills that are the problem," says McIntyre, who expects to have students in college for, at most, two days a week, with lessons spread from 9am to 9pm to maximise use of facilities. "You can watch YouTube and cook at home, but students need hands-on learning with a lecturer. You can't learn just from a video how to make a cocktail or fillet a fish."

The infrequency of kitchen time may be offset by enhanced learning in smaller groups. "Last year we had groups of 18 or 19. This year it'll be more like seven. That's got to be better."

Initially, students thought lockdown was the Netflix-and-pyjamas dream, but once they realised it was for the long haul, they got stuck into studying

College learning must also be supported with industry experience. At West Suffolk College, Level 3 hospitality course director Andy McGowan expects students to complete 100 hours of work experience during a normal academic year, but that is likely to be a challenge.

"College is about providing a skeleton framework of skills and good attitudes," says Andy Doyle at People 1st, which highlights and rewards best practice in UK colleges. "Employer engagement is essential."

At Suffolk New College, Mike Mulvihill, the incoming director of service industries, whose appointment coincided with lockdown, has wasted no time in contacting local employers: "Mike is plugged in," says his boss, Alan Pease. "But placements are going to be a challenge. Our plea to business is that even while times are tough, we are training your future workforce. We're asking employers to think long-term and work with us. If these young people are going to stay in the sector – and we need them to – they need as much time practising in the kitchen as possible."

At Kendal College, Axford is looking forward to starting the new academic year with a refreshed connection with Simon Rogan's Cumbrian restaurants. The college loaned its kitchen to Rogan's team to prepare the Simon Rogan At Home meals in a space big enough for chefs to socially distance. In return, Rogan's team will help the college develop a proposed Kendal College At Home meal delivery business. "With the college restaurant at 50% capacity, and with many of our regular guests elderly, it makes sense," says Axford. "And it will be a great practical experience for our students."

Numbers game

Despite Covid's impact on hospitality continuing to make headlines – and perhaps partly because of the job losses widely predicted to hit this autumn – uptake of college places seems strong. Carter has 35 signed up for Level 1 professional cookery at Milton Keynes, and 20 for Level 2. In Ipswich Pease says numbers at post-GCSE level are up; and in Glasgow things are "looking good".

Murray Chapman, organiser of several college-based competitions, believes the number of progressing second-years might fall, however. "That year group could struggle.

They effectively lost last term, which is the point in year one when things start to click. Progressing third years will be back – there are no jobs, so why give up college?"

McIntyre is also concerned about losing talent and wants to see people upskilling ready for when things get better – there are short courses aplenty at Glasgow for precisely that reason. Axford has added drop-in courses to the Kendal menu, aimed at people who want to refresh, say, fish filleting or meat prep skills; ditto at West Suffolk, where fully funded short courses are available in everything from food safety and customer service to problem-solving and conflict management.

McIntyre talks of the "fateful, fearful" weeks in March. "But I'm a glass half-full person. I try to look at solutions and be positive. So ‘be brave, be bold' is my message. We're in this together and in that respect it has been a bonding experience. There's been an honesty, a sharing, a sense of learning together.

Students have been less afraid to ask questions, and we teachers have learned so much, too – especially about technology!"

Axford adds: "There are lots of ifs, buts and maybes, but it takes a lot to knock us. Hospitality characters are resilient and the teachers have been amazing."

With college programmes dictated largely by the needs of industry, lecturers and department heads will inevitably be watching how the sector fares. "Things won't be like this forever," says Axford. "Term is about to start. You've just got to get on your toes, get back in the ring and fight again."

Apprenticeships ‘put on the back burner' for most companies

It is too early to assess the impact of Covid-19 on apprenticeships, or uptake of the employer incentive scheme announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak in July. The initiative is part of the government's stated commitment to making apprenticeships and improved employability a key part of the country's post-Covid recovery.

The £2,000 payment (per apprentice aged 16-24) is available to firms who hire between now and January 2021, and is in addition to the £1,000 already claimable when taking on new 16- to 18-year-old apprentices.

Whether it will convince employers remains to be seen. "Bigger businesses still pay the annual levy [0.5% of payroll when above £3m]," says Andy Doyle at People 1st, "but many smaller ones are focused purely on survival, and looking after their existing workforce. Hiring an apprentice may well be on the back burner."

At West Suffolk College, vice-principal Laraine Moody says the college is holding back from ‘selling' apprenticeships to strained employers. "Astute ones realise that part of rebuilding is about investing in staff, and that training someone in your style is invaluable; but others just can't do it right now."

For Murray Chapman, a "real low" came mid-April. Chapman, who supports young chefs and front of house professionals at the start of their careers through upskill events and college-based competitions such as Passion to Inspire, Young Pastry Chef and Zest Quest Asia, said: "A lecturer rang me, said he had five apprentices in a pubco. They'd initially been furloughed, then were made redundant. That wasn't a solo incident. To do it at any time is tough, but these were young trainees with two months to go."

The incident prompted him to start building a database of Level 3 college-leavers to match jobseekers with employers. Access is free for participating colleges and prospective employers, as long as employment starts before 12 October, government guidelines permitting.

"We need to help these young people. If we don't, they'll get jobs elsewhere. We've got to either make things happen, or let them happen. I know which I'd rather do."

Calls for a funding shake-up

"Now is the time for colleges to receive more funding, not less," says Andy Doyle at People 1st. "Funding hasn't changed for 10 years and it has to be looked at. Colleges are essential for the economy: they provide young people with real employability, but vocational education has always struggled against higher [education]."

Doyle hopes the government's autumn White Paper on further education (FE) will be supportive. Education secretary Gavin Williamson will outline long-term changes to FE, aimed at building the country's skills and fostering the same respect for technical qualifications as has historically been shown for university degrees. It remains to be seen what fresh funding will be made available.

"The success stories are amazing," says Doyle. "In school, a student might forever have been outside the head's office, but then that same person comes out of college able to serve 100 covers in a restaurant. So many successful people in industry struggled at school. Tom Kerridge openly admits that college set him on his path."

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