Judging the Tes FE Awards last year was, as always, an exciting privilege. The awards showcase the impressive breadth and impact of colleges and further education across a range of categories.
Being a judge offers inspiration and reminds me why this all matters so much – a great boost to counter the many hours I spend in debate and discussions about policy that can often feel very remote from students.
This year I was asked to lead on judging the “contribution to the community” award. This made me reflect on so many issues of current policy and practice as well as on my own experiences at college and university. The many examples of social action and volunteering that colleges support are impressive and all offer benefits to the students and the communities in which they live.
It’s clear that getting involved in social action helps build confidence and self-esteem, offering young people a real sense of purpose and non-monetary reward for their work. For many young people, this is empowering, giving them a sense of what they can offer to other people and to their community. The 170 sports students from Central College Nottingham, for example, will have given as well as gained enormously in their 4,500 volunteered hours on placements in primary schools, leisure centres and community organisations encouraging children to get active.
Every student at East Kent College is engaged in social action as part of their programmes. Six weeks of their academic year are progress weeks to focus on social action; a set-up that has been recently highly commended in an Ofsted report on the use of social action. East Norfolk College has refocused its strategy to ensure that “making a positive impact within our community” is part of the mission statement, leading to many successful partnerships. This includes James Paget University Hospital, where as many as 100 students a year take part in the mealtime volunteering programme.
These examples are repeated all over the country. A joint survey by the Association of Colleges and Tes earlier this year found that 83 per cent of colleges had youth social action as part of their culture and practice, with nearly half (47 per cent) saying that all departments support students to participate. AoC research in 2015 with the NUS students’ union found that out of 1,200 16 to 20-year-old college students, 57 per cent were current volunteers and 27 per cent had volunteered in the past.
How is this relevant to work experience? At the AoC, we have argued for some time that being involved in social action and volunteering is as transformational for young people as the best work experience. They are different, of course, but the commitment and discipline needed as a volunteer – the motivation, application, skills and knowledge learned – are as good, perhaps even better.
My own experience – granted, some time ago – backs this up. I had a series of jobs from the age of 13 that I fitted in after school, at weekends and during the holidays. Those were the days when those sorts of jobs were easier to come by. I had a great range of work experience – I knew the workplace banter and politics, the expectations of managers and the need to turn up on time and deliver.
All of that was invaluable, but it was getting involved as a volunteer where I found what motivated me and what type of career I wanted to pursue. I am pretty sure that no careers advisor would have helped me work out that I wanted to be involved in community development, learning and social policy, but that quickly became my motivation from the social action I was involved with.
For young people today, the “Saturday job” is harder to find, so social action can play an even bigger part in their path to work. It’s reassuring that more and more employers recognise this now, with many backing the #iwill campaign to help more young people access social action as part of their education.
Employers know that volunteering increases personal development and valuable skills. A CIPD survey in 2015 reported 67 per cent of employers saying that candidates with social action experience demonstrate better employability skills such as teamwork, time management and communication.
That’s why the guidance released by the Department for Education in July is so important. It clearly states that youth social action is an accepted example of work experience within study programmes for 16- to 19-year-olds. It’s a simple policy shift we have been pushing for on behalf of Step up to Serve’s #iwill campaign and it will make it easier for colleges to facilitate youth social action.
Colleges are uniquely placed within their communities, contributing so much to health, well-being and wealth. This new policy change provides a great opportunity for colleges to do even more by helping their students contribute more. There is also increasing evidence that social action and volunteering leads to better student progress.
So well done to the DfE for recognising this, well done to colleges that are already active and I look forward to encouraging even more colleges and communities to take advantage. Social action provides young people with the essential life skills that improve their educational and life outcomes. Colleges should seize the opportunity to make youth social action the norm.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges. He tweets @AoCDavidH