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Making social action part of our sector’s DNA

Dr Sam Parrett CBE, Group Principal and CEO, London & South East Education Group
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Last week’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations not only recognised the Queen’s incredible 70-year reign but brought together communities in a unique and heart-warming way.   

Street parties, fetes and parades up and down the country – including many events held by colleges – gave people an opportunity to join their neighbours and celebrate together in a way we haven’t seen (or been able to) for a long time.   

Volunteers’ Week also happened to fall across this special week of royal celebrations and again, is something in which so many people in our sector have played an important part.   

Colleges sit at the very heart of their communities; something which became very clear when we launched the Good for Me, Good for FE campaign at exactly this time last year. Within weeks, well over 100 colleges around the country had pledged their support and wanted to be involved.   

One Year On…

One year on and we have far exceeded our collective target of generating £1m of social value.  The volunteering and fundraising activities carried out by FE staff and students across the country have been immense, providing tangible value to the communities we serve and delivering positive, measurable and cohesive impact locally and nationally.  

The concept of being a civic institution is spoken about frequently but actually operating as one requires a genuine desire to put social change and social mobility at the heart of a strategic operating plan.   

It also requires a huge commitment from individuals within an organisation. A personal connection to the causes being supported is needed in order for employees to champion local community action and sustain involvement. 

This was our Corporation’s ambition when we decided to move to a social enterprise operating model. We looked at how we could focus our wider college endeavours on delivering greater social value for our local community and realised that the concept of moving towards being a ‘business with social objectives’ was a natural fit for our organisation.    

This direction of travel was also very much in line with the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, which advocates colleges to act as anchor institutions. According to Sladek (2019)… Everyone knows by now that colleges and universities are “anchor institutions”: important place-based engines that play key roles in local economies. But the raw facts of size and place are just the beginning of the story; what matters is not just the fact that anchors have an impact on communities, but what kind of impact they have, and on what terms. It is one thing to be an anchor institution. It is another to consciously and intentionally adopt an anchor mission, leveraging all available institutional and operational resources for community benefit.” 

As we’ve progressed through this journey, it has become clear that the social impact work we are supporting and advocating for is already being carried out by staff and students – and indeed always has been.   

Staff Contribute to their Communities

The contributions staff make to their communities outside of work have been astonishing to see.  The scope of activity is vast: from ongoing fundraising challenges through to scout group leaders, football coaching and hospital volunteers. Local and national charities have joined us on this journey and we have together had a far greater reach and influence than we dared to imagine just 12 months ago.  

We also recognise and are most grateful to own internal volunteer board members. The sector would be unable to operate without its own army of volunteer supporters. Our governing boards, trustees and local community governors are not always thought of as ‘volunteers’ but they most certainly are, with many giving significant hours of their time over the course of an academic year.    

We know that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of volunteering contributions. Yet the importance and impact of people giving up their time to help others in a vast range of contexts is not recognised or celebrated enough.   

Colleges (and FE as a whole) struggle to articulate the impact and value of this type of work though. Every college is generating millions of pounds of social value every year without really knowing or thinking about it. Using Social Value Portal’s National TOMS framework, we have been able to convert this ‘social currency’ into an equivalent monetary value, enabling us to better communicate the exceptional impact that colleges provide to their communities.   

We Need to Take this Further

Now, as a sector, we need to take this further. Volunteers’ week provided a great opportunity to showcase some of the brilliant work that college staff and students do, but it goes far beyond one single week of activity.   

FE colleges have the capacity to link up with local and national charities and community networks – providing longer-term volunteering opportunities for staff and students and supporting vital causes. This is no different from the strategic partnerships colleges are so good at striking up with businesses to help support students into employment.

Good for Me Good for FE

Good for Me Good for FE has highlighted the phenomenal amount of interest in social action and volunteering within our sector. We must now harness this, particularly in the difficult times we are living, with so many people in need of emotional, financial and mental health support.   

It is time for colleges to make sure that social impact becomes an intrinsic and evidenced part of their DNA – something we are now well on the way to delivering, with the tools needed to measure and monitor our impact. 

We are proud to be pioneering this work, leading with our founding partners at Loughborough and East Coast Colleges, a network of 140 colleges nationally that have all made the decision to have a wider impact on lives and local communities. We all stand together and draw strength from the unity we have created.  

The benefits of the Good for Me Good for FE network to the individual, the college and the local community of the G4ME network is far greater, far more inclusive and  far wider- reaching than we could have envisaged this time last year. 

I am immensely proud of each and every volunteer and participant college and the network we have created. I am looking forward to celebrating our sector-wide progress in the coming weeks as well as launching our collective future ambition.  

By Dr Sam Parrett CBE, Group Principal and CEO, London & South East Education Group

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