First published on Peterborough Matters 2022

The university will put us ahead of the curve

On the morning Peterborough Matters speaks to Al Kingsley an announcement is made that Peterborough is to become a new Education Investment Area, which he broadly welcomes, albeit cautiously.

It’s a good starting pointย for a conversation with a man who has advised many learning establishments across the UK on Digital Strategy, EdTech, safeguarding and broader strategic leadership, as well as writing numerous publications on these topics.

His own company NetSupport has spent 30 years developing solutions for schools, and in his career as a speaker and keynoter on life in and around the classroom – a long way from his own days when a BBC Micro only arrived for the last year – he has travelled across the world including the Middle East and USA, to name but two locations.

Tonight (February 11) he’ll be closer to home, hosting the first ever Cambridgeshire Apprenticeship Awards alongside combined authority mayor Dr Nik Johnson, in his role as an Apprenticeship Ambassador.

And that leads us naturally to Peterborough’s university, now just six or so months away; unsurprisingly, as a member of the Combined Authority business board he has been an advocate and supporter of the idea long before its fruition.

As one of its aims the university will hope to address the county’s different socioeconomic challenges for Cambridge on the south side of the county to Peterborough and the Fenlands. Of course Cambridge has its own university – but ours will offer something different.

Mr Kingsley, who is also Chair of Hampton Academies Trust, said: “The question is often ‘Why?’ There are so many universities, what’s so different about the one for Peterborough? Is it a status symbol or will it have an impact?

“The answer is that it’s not just a university – it has a different approach with a combination between degrees and work-based degrees. The model is different. We can’t pretend we’re Cambridge and everyone will turn up at the front door.

“We want young people to not come here for a qualification and then just leave to find their job of choice; we instead want a university that attracts people in the area to make that area more accessible; who come and study courses wrapped into feedback and demands of local employers; and we give them the skills so they are retained at the end.

“We want to satisfy a need, and that need is – why would businesses set up in Peterborough if they can’t attract the workforce they need?

“We need to grow a skill base for a strategic and successful city, and hopefully encourage the next set of entrepreneurs. Also, behind the scenes the local authority and combined authority constantly creates its own skills strategy and local skills audit, and that is not just about jobs now, but also what skills will be needed ten years from now – and that feeds into education, particularly post-16. So this is about putting us ahead of that curve.

“We’re known for agriculture but actually agri-tech is a huge sector that is really growing. It’s not about just getting your hands dirty, but there is a whole technology behind efficient, sustainable and environmentally-sound ways of farming.”

The first intake and indeed many future students will not look back on the past two years with any great joy, and Mr Kingsley recalled the education sector’s rapid realisations of what would be needed when March 23 arrived in 2020.

The core tools of online learning could not be easily and equally applied to all schools – barriers, differing levels of connectivity and training in technology, and the devices themselves that schools possessed, were all factors.

Overall, Mr Kingsley said: “Schools have adapted so well in the past 18 months. Some have done it amazingly and some have struggled, but that can be down to a whole number of factors.

“Covid has been the biggest catalyst for adoption of EdTech because conversations in school had previously concerned planning for growth, exams, keeping children safe, financial management, and EdTech has been on the list but never at the top. It’s always been a long-term thing.

“The pandemic accelerated it to the top, as a statutory requirement. Teachers have been forced to learn skills that to some was completely new.

“We’ve all tried some things that worked, and some that didn’t, and learned lessons And I always say that empowering people to take risks in education or business is the only way you accelerate innovation.”

“If you want to take a positive from it the Cambridgeshire education team did an amazing job, stepping up with daily and sometimes hourly updates on best practice and advice. I saw communications coming in at 11pm, midnight.

“Many other schools that I work with across the country were looking and saying they didn’t get that level of support. A huge amount of respect was built up, and bridges were formed between schools and the authority, during the pandemic.”

Some facets will almost certainly remain forever in education from Covid, such as online parent evenings and summer revision classes. However, there will still be other, less welcome residues of Covid, that may linger.

“The biggest unmeasured impact has been the social, emotional health and wellbeing of our children. We had the narrative about catch-up – a negative term that no-one wants to use – the simple narrative was the social and emotional needs of our learners.

“Lots of it was missing out on joint working, seeing peers and friends, but also the theatre, sport and music they had missed out on.

“When you look back on school there are memories that you hang your hat on, and those are often the school trips to Cornwall or Norfolk, or the performances on stage. I think it’s easy to dismiss that but in reality it might take some years for that cohort to pick up what they missed out on, and schools certainly have issues with capacity on how they can support learners in that while making sure they achieve the best they can academically. I really hope a slice of the amount allocated to Peterborough goes towards that.

“I speak across the country, and co-authored a digital strategy guide which is thinking about that journey. Schools are still learning and desperate to for that support. We’ve moved from learning those new systems, to an overall problem with staff numbers because so many people are ill or isolating.

“When you’re short of staff you just have to concentrate on the bare essentials. So these things get paused, and that’s why when people say we’re on the outturn of the pandemic that may be true in terms of deaths and significant illness, but in terms of disruption and cases we aren’t.

“The main thing we need to do is be empathetic – yes we can have masks, filtration – but the reality is that infections happen, so we need to promote understanding and parental engagement that when a child is not in school, that need not be a lost opportunity.”

It’s been an enjoyable 45 minutes, and anyone who visits Mr Kingsley’s website will see a huge range of videos, lectures, and resources, as glimpses into the edtech world.

He added: “I’m very much about lifelong learning, It starts at birth and I don’t think you should ever stop.

“I’m passionate about choice and opportunity, and for me it shouldn’t matter where you’re born or who to – you should have the same opportunities to excel in life.”

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