Why it’s time to recognise the work of colleges as social action leaders

New awards aim to recognise colleges for all the work they do that goes far beyond qualifications and transforms communities, explains Shelagh Legrave

New awards aim to recognise colleges for all the work they do that goes far beyond qualifications and transforms communities, explains Shelagh Legrave

28 Sep 2023, 5:00

As the further education commissioner and a strong advocate for the sector, I see the value that colleges add to their communities every single day. Further education is a driver of social mobility that enables people from all backgrounds to gain the qualifications they need to achieve their career goals.

But what we have seen over the past two years is a phenomenal movement within the sector that has begun to reflect the real additional value that it provides. Over 140 FE colleges signed up to the Good for Me, Good for FE campaign in 2021, which to date has generated over £4 million of real social value through volunteering.

This figure – verified by a social action calculator based on the TOMS framework – is the result of an extraordinary collective volunteering and fundraising effort led by college staff and students. Much of this activity was ongoing before the campaign launch, but by equating it with a monetary value, colleges have been motivated and inspired to increase and expand their contribution.

The desire and commitment of people within the sector to help others is evident. This is despite the many working pressures experienced by FE staff and reflects the inherent community spirit that runs through colleges. It has also further reinforced the importance of colleges as civic anchor institutions. 

Students too are playing an important part. We are seeing a huge amount of inspirational support from young people across the country’s colleges, with student unions driving impressive fundraising and volunteering activity. For example, a group of students and staff cooking food for the homeless and joining me in sleeping in cardboard boxes to raise awareness and funds.  This is particularly important to me since I have chaired a local homeless charity board for over ten years.

Students and staff have also raised money for Macmillan by selling cakes; they have sponsored and joined in Moonwalks for their local hospices; they have sponsored young people to attend school in Kenya and travelled there to help build infrastructure.  In Chichester, engineering, travel & tourism and construction staff came together to plan and build a children’s play area in a deprived part of the city. I could go on!

We have seen a phenomenal movement within the sector

These activities benefit everyone – the recipients and the person offering the support. Volunteering is proven to positively affect mental health, which was very much part of the rationale behind the Good for Me, Good for FE campaign.  

Crucially, the skills and knowledge young people develop through volunteering activities are immense – from improving communication to developing a first-hand understanding of a specific industry. Gaining experience within a workplace (or any other non-education setting) is not only valuable but essential for every young person, whether it’s paid or unpaid.

Plus, someone who has shown commitment and dedication to a voluntary placement on a regular basis is extremely attractive to a future employer. Volunteering is unequivocally advantageous to everyone involved. I believe it should be encouraged on a much wider scale.

With such stark, all-round benefits – coupled with the goodwill and social conscience found within FE communities, colleges need to harness and enhance this fantastic potential.    

By encouraging staff and students to undertake community-focused activities, colleges can be social action leaders. Whether this involves giving staff some annual ‘volunteering days’ or supporting students to take up placements at voluntary services or organisations, all will have an incredibly positive impact. 

The value a college adds to its local community has obvious reputational benefits. Leading by example in this way as anchor institutions reflects how colleges deliver much more than just qualifications.  

That’s why I am so pleased to be on the judging panel of the inaugural Good for Me, Good for FE awards. These will recognise and celebrate some of the amazing individuals, teams and colleges who go above and beyond to support their communities – helping to make FE the unique sector it is.   

I look forward to hearing the winners’ stories – and those of all the runners-up – and celebrating their hard work. I very much hope this will inspire more people to get involved so that more communities, including employers, can reap the benefits of a co-ordinated and successful social action movement across our wonderful sector. 

Nominations for the 2023 Good for Me, Good for FE awards close at 11.59pm, September 29, 2023.

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