One remarkable feature of life over the past 12 months is how successfully the UK construction industry has adapted to the constraints of Covid-19. By following the Construction Leadership Council’s evolving site operating procedures and developing practical ways to manage social distancing, the industry has kept sites open – and not just the ‘essential’ ones.
Compare this with the education sector, where schools and colleges have had to completely change their operations and most students have had to do their learning from home.
Construction doesn’t exist in a bubble (however you define that) and so the impact of lockdown on education and training has also affected students studying for a career in construction. Apprentices employed by contractors might spend most of their time learning on the job, but over the past year many have missed out on their essential college tuition.
During the first Covid lockdown last year, it became clear to managers at London-based brickwork specialist Lee Marley Brickwork (LMB) that their apprentices would not receive the same theory and practical training they would have had at college and on site.
With the second lockdown, last November, the company’s response to the situation was to develop a revised training plan so that its 20 or so apprentices didn’t miss out on either the theory or practical side of their training.
Lee Marley’s secret weapon has been brickwork training specialist Christian Hatherall-Good who, as head of construction curriculum at Brooklands College in Weybridge, Surrey, has taught many LMB apprentices over the years.
Hatherall-Good is not just a brickwork expert, he’s also an educational innovator bursting with ideas about how to deliver tuition most effectively.
“Lee himself first contacted me about six years ago via LinkedIn where I’d posted some of my apprentices’ competition successes. He liked the standard of the work,” says Hatherall-Good.
For the next five and a half years, Marley enrolled all his brickwork apprentices at Brooklands College where they were taught for one day a week by Hatherall-Good for their NVQ2 and NVQ3 qualifications. But with the coming of Covid-19, this college component was thrown into disarray.
Not that this stopped Hatherall-Good who – even before the lockdown – had been harnessing social media and other technologies to develop remote teaching resources for his students. “I used various apps like Google Meet, and made ‘how-to’ videos, Powerpoints, workbooks and so on as teaching aids,” he explains.
Hatherall-Good had also been asked by qualifications awarding body the National Open College Network (NOCN) to contribute a series of brickwork training videos to its suite of construction support materials.
“Lee saw this and when we spoke just as Covid hit, he said ‘how long is this going to go on for? How can we continue to teach our apprentices?’” says Hatherall-Good.
Marley already had the answer to his questions: anxious to maintain his apprentices’ learning, he offered Hatherall-Good a full-time job as the company’s new training manager.
Hatherall-Good joined the company in October where his role has been to support and teach the apprentices on site. Since they couldn’t attend college from January this year, Hatherall-Good has been spending three days a week taking the tuition out of the classroom and to his students at their places of work.
He explains: “We have two apprentices at each site and I can visit – if it’s safe to do so, with social distancing, face masks etc – and explain things to them. I’ve done demonstrations, laid bricks, built corners and so on just as I would have at college.”
Without this on-site tuition, the apprentices would not have been able to keep up with their studies. “Normally they’d be at college from nine to five one day a week and the other four days they’d be on site where they’d be supervised by a senior bricklayer or one of the site foremen,” continues Hatherall-Good.
“But of course they’d not have the same sort of input because these people are working. So instead of taking one of these experienced bricklayers or foremen away from what they should be doing, I’m there now. I’ll spend a day per site and go around the projects and coach my students every fortnight,” he says.
LMB’s apprentices are still enrolled at Brooklands College where they went back one day a week at the start of the academic year in September 2020, albeit in smaller groups to maintain social distancing. But since the start of January, they haven’t been at college at all and have relied upon remote lessons from their college tutor as well as Hatherall-Good.
“I also send them work remotely and of course they’ve had me on site since October,” he says.
Now, with guidance from the government’s so-called ‘roadmap’, the restrictions that have interrupted teaching and learning for students of all ages and disciplines are expected to recede and life can return to normal. But Hatherall-Good says that apprentice training at LMB has probably changed for good.
“It’s what I was working towards anyway when I was still teaching at college,” he says. “I was producing these ‘how to’ videos and other resources for my students before all this happened.”
Now Lee Marley wants to take it even further and set up its own facility – the Lee Marley Brickwork Training Centre. “We want to do things a little bit different from the colleges,” says Hatherall-Good.
“The colleges have to follow a curriculum but at Lee Marley we’re building some of the latest up-to-date buildings in the country and using materials and methods that aren’t yet in the curriculum.
“I’d like to have our own training centre where we can teach the latest methods and even get other companies to come in and do things like CPD courses as well,” he adds.
“I believe that training on the job through an apprenticeship is the best way to learn. You can earn a wage while learning. I believe that real-life learning is important, but it can’t be all of the learning, as apprentices need to have the opportunity in a college or training centre to practise new skills, gain knowledge and have the opportunity to make mistakes without it being detrimental to the build of the project and time constraints.”
With its own training centre, LMB hopes also to accelerate the learning process. “The way we’re thinking is that new apprentices would be on a block release so for the first month at least they’d come to the training centre five days a week to learn the basics,” says Hatherall-Good.
“That would be like the equivalent of half a year of coming one day a week to college. In bricklaying, everything stems from the basics…that intense training would equip them with the basic tools of their trade,” he says.