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Why we are re-imagining social action and embedding it in our college culture - Dr Sam Parrett CBE

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

For the past five years, we have been working to establish a group identity which has social enterprise, social mobility and social impact at its core.

Our vision, mission and values have underpinned our ambition to have a measurable impact on lives and communities –with a determination to become “more than just an education provider” when we brought our college and our multi academy trust together.

We have had some exceptional success on our journey so far, having generated over £100m of social value, as a group, since 2019. This has been achieved in different ways, including our focus on local recruitment, supporting the growth of regional business via effective procurement and investment and collaborating with a wide range of partners to achieve the greatest possible impact.

As has been reflected by our Good for Me Good for FE campaign, further education is an extremely socially-minded sector. Staff and students regularly go above and beyond to support one another and their wider communities. Harnessing this good work nationally has enabled us to see the true extent of the impact colleges have – with over £4m collectively generated from our 140 colleges in just two years.

Building social action into our organisational culture has been key to this success and is fundamental to ensuring we can sustain the work moving forward. This has meant embedding our values at every level of the organisation – for example, supporting staff to take part in voluntary activities, encouraging students to fundraise and ensuring social enterprise is an integral part of every curriculum.

And we are not alone. More and more organisations are recognising the value of supporting their staff to get involved with volunteering activities. Helping others boosts wellbeing, with a recent Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) report discovering that 93% of employees who volunteer through their company reported being happy with their employer. In addition, 54% of those who are proud of their company’s contributions to society, are engaged at work*.

I like the idea of “citizenship crafting” - which is based on the notion that people can proactively shape the way they go beyond the call of duty (not just at work), becoming more personally fulfilled and enhancing their strengths.

While we have always been deep rooted in our communities, the College of the Future report (2020) which identified colleges as being anchor institutions, really resonated with us. We wanted to add more value to our communities and be as much of an asset as possible to the diverse groups of people we serve.

Recognising the need for this innovation was the first step. We then needed to raise awareness both within our organisation and outside of it. Ensuring staff understood our ambitions and vision was vital if we were to communicate it successfully externally. We did this through staff consultations and regular discussions, taking the time to listen to feedback and responding to it.

We have also built partnerships across the region, working with our local authorities, charities and employers to ensure that we were supporting one another and working towards shared goals. For example, developing effective relationships with our local authorities to provide high quality SEND and AP provision for children and young people across the region in our schools and college.

Collaborating with HEIs and other education providers is also key, helping our students to access pathways to high level courses and successful careers, supporting social and economic mobility.

Strengthening these partnerships has resulted in wider benefits for our staff, students and organisation as a whole. From work experience opportunities with local employers to attracting high quality teaching staff from industry, our experience is telling us that collaboration rather than competition impacts lives far more positively.

Again, seeing the impact that the 140 Good for Me Good for FE colleges have had as a collective shows true strength in numbers. Being part of a network in which people can share ideas, best practice and offer encouragement is immensely valuable – for example, sharing fundraising ideas, volunteering suggestions and effective employer engagement strategies will all increase the effectiveness of a college’s own social action strategy.

Crucially though, reflecting on and learning from initiatives is key to their ultimate success. We are now at the point of setting our new group strategy for the next five years. Our aim is to be a truly research-led, evidence-based organisation, with a dynamic capability to respond to our socio-economic environment – both locally and nationally.

We want to focus on the right priorities for the years ahead and ensure we listen to staff and students’ views on how best to achieve our goals. So, we are undertaking a group-wide consultation to ensure we harness views and suggestions from all part of the organisation.

We know that maintaining the incredible momentum of the last five years is a challenge. To help do this, we need to innovate further and draw on research and evidence from across the sector and beyond.

To support this, we have set up a research function within our group, to ensure that everything we do is based on evidence and identifies a clear need. This includes many elements, from teaching practice and effective pedagogy, through to accessible labour market information and ensuring students are being equipped with the right skills to secure great careers.

We also want to expand the positive impact we are having on people’s lives via a philanthropic and charitable route. As we have seen from Good for Me Good for FE, harnessing goodwill and a desire to help others can make a phenomenal difference to people’s lives.

Our new charitable foundation, LASER, will support this – amplifying the positive work our college and Trust do – and further embedding this into the DNA of our education group via additional fundraising and support.

We know that education has the power to change lives – as does empowering people to go above and beyond in their roles and their lives. We have seen this through the outstanding achievements of our Good for Me Good for FE Award winners – who will be crowned at Westminster tomorrow.

We look forward to building on this work over the coming years, continuing to strengthen relationships with our valued local and national partners as we work towards our shared vision of improving lives.

* Using the TOMs framework and independently verified by the Social Value Portal

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