The positive legacy of a crisis

Dr Sam Parrett OBE, Group Principal and CEO of London South East Colleges, led a national food bank initiative. In this article, Sam describes the leadership challenges during the effort and the legacy it’s having for non-crisis times.

Dr Sam Parrett OBE sitting at a desk.

The last 14 months have been undeniably tough – but as the light at the end of the very long tunnel begins to shine more brightly, it is an important time to reflect on the good things that have emerged.

FE Foodbank Friday has not only been a successful campaign, which has raised important funds and food for people in need – but has brought the Further Education (FE) sector together in a unique way during a very challenging time.

We knew that from a local perspective, our kind-hearted staff would get behind the initiative and support it, which they very much did. What we hadn’t expected was the enthusiasm and collective strength of the wider FE sector, nationwide.

Rivalries put aside

Seeing over 37 colleges coming together to back the campaign was not only heartwarming, but truly representative of the FE sector and the intrinsic role that colleges play within their communities. Any institutional ‘rivalries’ were put aside and the focus was entirely on making the joint campaign as successful as possible – which resulted in raising over £47,000 and in excess of 20,000 items for local foodbanks around the country.

As part of this work, we also built on our links with local authorities to draw on their expertise and knowledge as to where need was greatest within the London Boroughs of Bromley, Bexley and Greenwich. in terms of food poverty. This ensured that our staff’s hard work was going to have maximum benefit to the people who needed it most – as well as strengthening existing relationships with our public sector colleagues. 

Fantastic connections were also developed with our local community voluntary agencies – in particular, Community Links Bromley. We were able to call on this organisation when we needed volunteers to help test students and staff for COVID-19, enabling college sites to re-open in March. We were overwhelmed with the positive response and this was a remarkable outcome of developing genuine links within our wider community. 

A broad legacy

The legacy of #FEFoodBankFriday is therefore far greater than the money raised and the food items collected. The success of this initiative feeds into our Group’s commitment to add genuine and quantifiable social value to our communities. We are working hard to be more than just a college that delivers qualifications – and #FEFoodBankFriday has helped us to demonstrate the potential of this approach to other colleges.

The Independent Commission of the College of the Future highlights the need for colleges to be anchor institutions within their communities. And, as an education group spanning three London Boroughs, this is a role we are focused on – and we know that working collectively as a sector means we can have even more impact.

This campaign has helped us to create a “community wealth” culture among staff and students, with social action becoming embedded in our daily lives. It has also provided the opportunity to connect locally and indeed nationally with the wider public sector – including local authorities and the voluntary sector- who are all working to improve lives and deliver social capital. 

We are now looking at how we build on the #FEFoodBankFriday legacy and establish an annual campaign to support the changing needs of our communities. We want to capture the energy, motivation and commitment of our own staff and students, as well as continuing to work with the wider FE sector, to deliver real benefit to all. 

Dr Sam Parrett OBE is Group Principal and CEO of London & South East Education Group and is taking part in the NLC public leaders programme.

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022