The last 12 months might have been challenging but, right now, Luke O’Gorman has every reason to be optimistic. Apprentice numbers might well be down in the rest of the country but there is no sign of that at Bolton College. In fact student numbers have doubled over the past three years, and the icing on the cake is the return of the BMI Apprentice of the Year competition.
“We’ve got 36 new starters, 40 returners and we’ve got a waiting list,” he says. Naturally the pandemic disrupted normal classroom teaching yet adaptability on the part of both tutors and students enabled them to discover very effective workarounds.
“We had to make a lot of adaptations to cope with Covid, using a lot of online tuition for two days of the week. when the students would usually be with us, and encouraging them to gather a lot more on-site evidence of their skills,” continues Luke.
“But all in all I think it went rather well, once we got over the teething issues, and in the long run I think we all got proficient in on-line technologies we wouldn’t ordinarily have touched.”
Luke has put many of the resources he would have used in college into a ‘virtual classroom’ so they can be accessed by any device – – whenever the student needs them. As a result, subjects that might seem just academic become far more practical, Luke says.
“There are different formulas for different products, and they would refer to these in college. Now that these are available online they’re a lot more accessible and they can even use them at work.”
His favourite app is Google Classroom, which students can access from their phones, and enables him to put on content such as quizzes to keep them engaged. Yet this could not help in teaching the practical skills, though it helped that many roofing contractors returned to work well before other trades. The result was that students were very aware of what they needed to learn once they returned to the classroom.
“We had to hope they could pick up most of their skills on site and then, when they did get back into college, it was all hands to the pump. The students did have a very focused approach – they wanted to make the most of the time that they had with us,” Luke observes.
Site visits were also impossible during the Covid lockdown. The students might be classified as key workers, but their tutors weren’t, so there was no way on-site. For Luke, this robbed him of what he considers one of the most satisfying parts of his job, seeing his students grow in maturity and skill. It also meant that he had to carry out his duty of care remotely by telephone, keeping in touch to check on their well-being and keeping a note of each one.
Now everything seems to be returning to pre-Covid ways of working, the well-respected BMI Apprentice of the Year has returned. Students enter for either BMI Pitched Roofing Apprentice of the Year 2021 or BMI Flat Roofing Apprentice of the Year 2021.
“We’ve really missed the competition, it is a real positive for the students to have something to aim for and we had all the material to show what previous students had achieved,” Luke comments.
Luke is glad to see the competition return because the accolades of winning are only half the story. Those who are short-listed and take part in the two-day final gain a lot more, he says, having previously attended the two-day final at the BMI academy in South Cerney, Gloucestershire.
“The effect on the contestants was impressive. It built their ambition and introduced them to skills such as speaking with customers and presentation which will make them all-round tradesmen, not just roofers,”.
“It’s very different from other competitions in the industry, which are more focused on practical skills. You could see the contestants changing from the very first day, growing in confidence and ability even if they didn’t win.”
Luke believes the competition is so important that he shows videos of previous years’ competitions to his students to get them primed up for it – and found them very enthusiastic. He sees the competition as a win-win that benefits both the employer and the student.
“The employer gains an employee that wants to get better, that wants to do the job right, and – if they win – can bring a bit of prestige to the company. The student gets a real sense of self-worth because they get recognition for their skill and for their understanding of the business.”
Luke believes that the new term sees the college and its students in a strong place. They have weathered the pandemic; numbers are up, and the students can now use their devices – to use resources once only available in college. And now there’s also a competition that is an arena for students to test their skills – and extend them in a way that colleges can’t.