There are many topics within FE that I am passionate about, but there are few that I care about quite as much as social action. Embedding our college into our local communities is so important, in my view, that it actually makes up part of our mission statement. And there’s good reason for me personally to place such an emphasis on building stronger links within the community.
When I became principal at East Kent College in 2010, young people in the campus’ local community had developed a poor reputation. It wasn’t the case that the college itself was perceived negatively, but I remember feeling hurt when people spoke in poor terms about the youths in our area. As a consequence, I felt it was important, for one key reason, to begin a programme that would enhance our young people’s reputation. If we are to expect our young people to integrate into their communities, then negative stereotypes are unhelpful and can hinder positive relationships from being built.
I knew inside that, actually, our young people are constructive individuals who have a tremendous amount to give to their local community. My ambition was to help communicate this to that wider community. I wanted to change the dynamic from an “us and them” approach to one in which everyone shared the same goal of building a better world around them – and I knew that this was something that the young people I worked with on a day-to-day basis also sought.
So how does a college principal go about building an entire group’s reputation? By acting as a conduit between the community and the youths within that community. After all, I couldn’t do this single-handedly, or even with the help of staff members alone. The role of the college was to act as a facilitator that could help to start that process, rather than attempting to do it itself.
My team and I came up with a strategy to get our students engaged in the community, taking on meaningful projects that had a visible impact. We decided to dedicate time – a key ingredient – to tackling these social action projects, as well as staff manpower. Over the course of every academic year, our students receive six weeks to work on community projects. These are known as “progress weeks”, and they allow students the time to develop a range of skills that they may not have otherwise acquired, with a diverse series of projects undertaken.
Get everyone involved
All staff – whether they are curriculum or support – help the students during these weeks, ensuring that their projects can be followed through effectively. They act as a bridge between external community groups, councils and individuals, helping to facilitate successful social action.
And at East Kent College, there’s an expectation that our staff care about improving their community, too – they also take part in social action projects. Another key factor is making sure that projects that are started get finished – after all, you’re more likely to damage young people’s reputations if projects fade away without being completed, and they don’t get the added benefit of having something they can take a sense of pride in.
Our college is now around four years into our community social-action programme. Each of our three campuses shares the same guiding philosophy that we should be at the heart of the community, and at the heart of making things better for local people.
We’ve worked on some wonderful projects that enhance our curriculum, enrich our staff and students, and – most importantly of all – support and benefit the communities in which we work. We’ve also been heavily supported by national campaigns such as the #iwill social-action campaign, and also recent announcements, like the Department for Education’s guidance allowing students to count social action as work experience.
What, though, has been the result of all this? Has it managed to deliver that new dynamic for our young people within their local communities? It’s a difficult question to answer as it’s a very subjective thing. So, as a mathematician by training, instead of giving you an answer, I’ll give you two key statistics. Since we began our programme, we have delivered in excess of 80,000 hours of social action and a total of 200 separate projects. It’s hard to believe that this hasn’t made a significant impact on the relationship between our young people and the local community, bringing them together and helping them to share the same goals.
Graham Razey is principal of East Kent College
Tips for establishing a social action programme:
Dedicate time to social action. It should not be an afterthought and it needs to be planned in advance.
Involve the whole college community – that means staff, students: everyone who participates in college life.
Celebrate the work that is done – not just by getting reports in the local newspaper, but internally as well.
Evaluate the work that is done. Make sure that you look at what has been completed and learn from those projects that haven’t worked well.