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Colleges Week 2020 – Taking Our College to the Community

Asfa Sohail, Principal of Lewisham College talks about the role of colleges and the important part they play in supporting the lives of those in their local community.

Colleges Week is always a positive platform for the further education sector and its stakeholders. A chance to come together to really champion all of the fantastic work which goes on every single day. It’s also a great opportunity to take stock of the last few months and to recognise the contributions of our colleagues and students outside of their day to day teaching and learning.

This year, the theme “supporting people and supporting communities” was something that really struck a chord with me.

Immediately I knew I had to contribute, to demonstrate that colleges offer so much more than further education, to show that every single day we enhance the lives of those within our locality.

Like every other business, colleges have had to move quickly to adapt to a ‘new normal’ for our colleagues and our learners. It has not been easy but despite these difficulties, colleges have stood up and gone the extra mile to help others. It hasn’t taken a pandemic to ignite this community spirit – it is something that has always been an important part of the role that colleges play.

Lewisham College is renowned for being a community college, but I could see it had so much more to give before I arrived as Principal in early 2019.

The potential was clear; a college rooted within a diverse and vibrant community with access to resources, partners and expertise – we needed to bring all of this together to offer more to the people and the businesses around us.

It perhaps may have been easier to focus only on internal matters, but I knew that we had a duty as a college to re-engage and ‘do more’ with our community groups sooner rather than later.

With that in mind, I began to lead a team to work within the heart of our community. At the time it was tough to balance the demands of a new role whilst trying to ensure we could make an immediate impact with those outside of our college.  I saw it as my own personal responsibility to initiate relationships and meet with groups across the Borough to understand their challenges and to see how the college could find the right solutions and the right support.

I often talk about ‘taking the college to the community’ and that’s exactly what myself and my colleagues did from the offset. Yes, the college is a physical building, but its assets are our students and colleagues who have a connection and a sense of belonging to the Lewisham Borough.

We needed to formalise partnerships, identify long term strategic goals and ensure these weren’t just one-off initiatives.

Colleges have a wealth of expertise, not only in personnel but with our infrastructure, networks and access to resources. This means that when building up a partnership we’re able to offer a variety of solutions that can be tailored to the needs of our community. We all want to make a difference and that’s what has been the single most important factor in making this approach a success.

We know we can’t do this in isolation and that’s why we team up with Lewisham Borough Council to support their recovery plan; everything we do feeds into the success of the bigger picture.

Speaking on the partnership, Pinaki Ghoshal, Executive Director for Children & Young People at Lewisham Borough Council commented: “Lewisham College has a long-standing tradition of providing education and much more in the heart of Lewisham.

“The college works hard to offer exciting and relevant opportunities for young people and adults which support them on their learning journeys, particularly in these difficult times.  I look forward to a long and successful partnership with the college and the future initiatives Asfa and her team are planning.”

I’m proud to say we now have over 30 strategic partnerships with community groups, housing associations, charities and support organisations, and we’re working towards developing so many more. These partnerships are diverse in nature and we commit to ongoing support so that it becomes mutually beneficially for the organisation and our students, both of which benefit from a truly supportive environment.

We do something different with every single one. From colleagues delivering life skills tutoring sessions to young homeless women, to students supporting mental health charities through work experience; it really is a bespoke and individual programme.

It’s hard to pick stand out examples but I’m particularly proud of the college’s work with Phoenix Community Housing, a not-for-profit resident-led housing association based in South London.

Our students took over their community venue and provided beauty treatments to the Phoenix House residents in a “Makeover Takeover”. A fantastic example of our students going out into the neighbourhood, using the skills they have developed on their course whilst enhancing the lives and experiences of local residents – making our community brighter.

Phoenix Housing also recruited a group of young students with learning disabilities for a nine-month work placement; a wonderful opportunity for young people to gain independent life skills with the aim of gaining full-time employment.

You can begin to see how these relationships are mutually beneficial for our partners and Lewisham College – and in turn contribute to a thriving community within Lewisham.

Jim Ripley, Chief Executive of Phoenix Housing Association commented on the Makeover Takeover: “Thanks to your amazing team and students, who spent yesterday pampering residents and staff. It was a total inspiration!

“It’s really good to see the partnership between Phoenix Housing and Lewisham College growing.”

Whilst we take the college to the community, we also bring the community to us. Our resources and infrastructure allow us to utilise our facilities outside of the curriculum calendar to support our networks in a range of different ways.

The 999 Club is a local charity whose centre in Deptford Broadway is available for the homeless to have breakfast, read the paper and get online. The charity takes in visitors in various situations, from rough sleepers to sofa surfers, providing services to help them get back on their feet.

We understand that individuals often need a confidence boost and wrap around support to enable them to move forward, and colleges can help people do just that.

One of our projects has enabled local disadvantaged residents to take part in an art project in conjunction with the V&A Museum. The project gave access to the college’s carpentry workshops, where residents upcycled used exhibit packing crates into furniture to be displayed at the London Design Festival.

Tim Fallon, CEO of the 999 Club commented on the project: “We’re hugely grateful to all our partners, particularly the V&A and Lewisham College, who have enabled what was an ambitious idea to become an amazing reality.”

I could go further to talk about the time ESOL students raised over £600 for the Ruth Hayman Trust through a food fundraiser. I could talk in great detail about our health and social care students and how they worked voluntarily during lockdown to support Lewisham Local, delivering food parcels and making daily phone calls to those most vulnerable. All amazing examples of amazing people doing everything they can to help those who need it most.

Deljona Gjomaka is one student who supported the Lewisham Local initiative. She explained: “I was able to help my community with the knowledge and skills I’ve developed on my course, and gained a thorough understanding of the impact the lockdown can cause on mental health.”

These are just a handful of examples, but all of which make me extremely proud to be leading a college that has the needs of the local community in its DNA.  I’m pleased to have made some really positive steps over the last 18 months, however this is just the beginning.

National Colleges Week amplifies the amazing and selfless work that goes on in our sector.

As part of a leading college group NCG, and with a clear direction of travel, we’re able to share expertise and spark curiosity with our fellow colleges to find solutions to the most complex problems – we see this as part of our civic responsibility.

NCG’s mission is to be the UK’s leading college group recognised for our local impact, national influence and reach. The work which we’re undertaking at Lewisham College really focuses on ‘impact’. I look forward to continuing our journey to help revive our communities in all kinds of creative and innovative ways.