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Teaching through a pandemic

Teaching through a pandemic Posted on 17 June 2021

Painting and decorating students at Inverness College UHI

Last year was a tough one for apprentices working in the painting and decorating field. With colleges closed and online learning the norm, it was hard to gain the practical skills required. We spoke to lecturers Mark Mitchell and Mo Turner from Inverness College UHI to find out how they coped.

Crown Paints has been sponsoring Apprentice Decorator of the Year for more than 40 years, so making the decision to postpone the competition in 2020 was a tough one. The company invests heavily in the next generation of apprentice decorators, as they are the future of the industry. Without them coming up through the ranks, there would be no industry. 

Although lockdown measures are now easing, most of the country has been impacted by varying stages of closures for the last few months. Apprentices have been hit hard, as colleges have been unable to offer normal levels of teaching. We spoke to Mark Mitchell and Mo Turner, Painting and Decorating Lecturers at Inverness College UHI – where Apprentice Decorator of the Year 2019 winner Gatis Celmins carried out his apprenticeship – to find out what challenges the pandemic has presented for colleges and apprenticeships, and what the future looks like for the industry. Mark Mitchell answers our questions.

What challenges did Inverness College UHI face in 2020?

When news first started to break about the virus, it seemed like an issue that was far removed from our part of the world – the general feeling among our apprentices to begin with was that it wouldn’t reach the Highlands. On an organisational level, our top priority was, of course, finding ways to deal with the pandemic, so we had staff meetings to discuss what was likely to happen in the event of a lockdown, but we never thought it would actually happen. 

Once it started to become clear how serious the situation in the UK was becoming, we realised that we had no option but to close the doors to our campuses. Fortunately, my group of second year apprentices were in a good place to complete their practical work before that happened. 

When we first went into lockdown back in March 2020, the biggest challenge to our department was the unfortunate loss of face-to-face teaching, which is a vital part of the apprentices’ training in painting and decorating. Because most of the units we deliver feature a combination of theory and practical elements, the lockdown made it very difficult for the apprentices to complete some elements of their practical work. As soon as our campuses re-opened, our primary focus was ensuring that the apprentices completed the outstanding practical elements of the curriculum.

We worked with the apprentices to carry out theory-based learning remotely. Many were able to quickly adapt to these systems, however, there are always issues relating to this – with some not having access to laptops or Wi-Fi. We have been able to support our students by providing access to technology, but in the early stages of lockdown, we spent a lot of time supporting our apprentices with using IT systems.

How did you communicate with apprentices while the college was closed?

We’ve always had really good lines of communication with our apprentices and like to keep in touch with all of our past and present students (Gatis recently called in to see us to borrow some trammels), which made this process much easier than it otherwise would have been. We have our own closed Facebook group where we post relevant information and check in with each other to make sure no one is struggling. This worked really well for keeping the apprentices engaged with us too, as we ran competitions where they could win things like brushes and t-shirts. 

We’d also like to thank Crown Trade for running a social media competition for apprentices – a couple of Inverness College UHI students won and I know they were delighted to receive their Crown t-shirts!

What changes were put into place once the college could reopen?

Of course we made sure that we were following all government requirements and kept a close eye on these as further changes were implemented in order for the college to reopen, and we carried out workshop risk assessments to ensure appropriate measures were put in place for when the apprentices returned. 

There’s lots of new signage around the college and you can’t go very far without passing a sanitising station now. All of our apprentices have adapted to the changes really well; no one complained about having to wear a mask. We did try to put a light-hearted spin on this new requirement, by wearing the most humorous masks we could find.

At first the apprentices struggled with the new social distancing protocols, but they did come to terms with their importance in order for face-to-face workshops to continue. 

I’m so pleased that these protocols mean we can have face-to-face teaching again; there’s always a lot of positive energy in the workshops and our apprentices bring so much humour and colour into our lives. In spite of what they might think, we missed them all dearly during lockdown!

How do you think any time that has been missed will impact apprentices in the future?

I’m hopeful that this won’t have too big an impact on the apprentices in the long term. We’ve worked really hard to keep them engaged when we have had to move to remote learning, and similarly, when our campuses re-opened, we worked hard to prioritise the practical learning so they could catch up. Most teaching in college takes place during the first two years of an apprenticeship, so there’s scope to make up for lost classroom time in years three and four. 

The feeling we have is that contractors will see a huge increase in their workloads, which is great but does also present challenges. It’s very difficult for employers to release apprentices to college when they’re so busy – we try to be as accommodating as we can but our ultimate priority is apprentice welfare. I see this increase in work as a fantastic opportunity for greater apprentice recruitment in the future. 

What are your expectations for teaching and apprenticeships
in 2021?

Ever the optimists, we’re expecting to see more recruitment of apprentices after Easter and into summer and I’m looking forward to welcoming plenty of fresh faces into their first year. In August and September our main priority will be preparing our fourth-year students for their end of apprenticeship skills test, which determines whether the apprentices can be classified as professional painters and decorators. 

We’re also really hopeful that the Apprentice Decorator of the Year competition will be able to take place this year. The students love the competitive aspect of it, and we enjoy the social side of catching up with our colleagues from other colleges!