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Could volunteering and social action be a solution to our skills issues? - Dr Sam Parrett CBE

29 June 2023

Dr Sam Parrett CBE, principal and CEO of London South East Colleges

Colleges deliver far more to their communities than just education. Offering accessible pathways to people of all ages and all backgrounds to gain the skills and knowledge they need to achieve great jobs, is a genuine driver of social mobility.

To this end, we know that colleges generate extensive social value and community wealth, which has been demonstrated by the sector’s Good for Me Good for FE campaign. Launched in 2021 and having quickly built a network of 140 colleges and charitable partners (including AoC), this initiative has quantified the added value that colleges provide to their communities in monetary terms, via voluntary and fundraising activities.

In the last two years, almost £4m of social value has been generated by our network. This has been evidenced via a social value calculator, developed using the TOMs framework in partnership with the Social Value Portal. Colleges have come on board to report and celebrate the voluntary work that their staff and students are doing in their communities – which has driven even more, impactful activity.

One of the many successes and indeed learnings from this project has been the positive impact that volunteering activities have had on the employability skills of individual students. This is particularly crucial at a time when attributes such as communication, teamwork, adaptability, creativity and digital literacy are in such demand from employers.

Recent research published by the NFER[1][1], from its Skills Imperative 2035 programme, sets out the importance of fully preparing people for a rapidly changing job market, by equipping them with the types of transferrable skills listed above. These will be in high demand in the next 15 years and beyond, and without them, there will be a real risk of underemployment and related social issues.

In addition, the government’s local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) put real emphasis on the importance of making post 16 technical education and training “more responsive and closely aligned to local labour market needs.[1][2]This reiterates the calls from industry to ensure they have access to a pipeline of well skilled employees, who understand the working environment and can communicate effectively, as well as having technical capability.

This focus on “work readiness” is even more crucial with AI and other technological advances moving at such pace and impacting on many jobs in all industries. As educators, we need to acknowledge and address this via the creation of innovative curricula, pioneering industry partnerships and a willingness to do things differently.

Every student needs to develop a suite of skills that goes beyond technical course knowledge. In the past, traditional work experience has supported this and like all colleges, we have focused on making placements as meaningful as possible. But as demand for high quality work experience grows - particularly with the introduction of T Levels and their 45-day placement requirement – we need to think more creatively about how students can get the opportunity to develop these essential employability skills.

And this is why we must encourage the recognition of voluntary and community work as a valuable form of work experience, with social action benefitting everyone. For example, a student giving their time to support a local project will be adding value to their community, while also developing the student’s own employability skills. This will ultimately help them to access a good job in the future, aiding their own social mobility and the wider economy.

In addition, it is well documented that volunteering has a positive impact on a person’s wellbeing. A study of 17,000 people by the University of East Anglia[1][3] revealed that volunteering is associated with enhanced wellbeing, including improved life satisfaction, increased happiness and decreases in symptoms of depression.

At a time when mental health issues are so rampant, encouraging a culture of community and supporting others has never been as important. This was very much part of the rationale for developing Good for Me Good for FE, particularly post pandemic. It also represents the kind, caring and inclusive nature of our sector.

As Anchor Institutions embedded within communities, college networks have never been so important. Among the recommendations made by The Independent Commission on the College of the Future report[1][4] was an imperative to ensure employers can ‘make the education and skills system work for their needs’.

To do this, we need to develop creative new ways to meet such requirements by strengthening links with other colleges, employers, charities and other stakeholders. This is more important than ever with changing skills needs and a huge shake-up of job roles on the horizon.

Good for Me Good for FE has shown exactly how effective collective, national action can be in terms of generating real impact locally. It has also presented a potential solution to a wider problem of expanding opportunities for young people to gain experience of work and develop crucial, in- demand employability skills.

Having clearly evidenced the extent and impact of social action taking place within our sector, we must now maximise the potential it has to support longer-term career success and the wider economy.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.