From education to employment

#BlackLivesMatter, what does this means for Further Education in the UK?

Palvinder Singh

“Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.”

Albert Einstein

The recent murder of George Floyd in America has led to a global protest for justice. I reflect and imagine a conversation with my younger self in the year 1993. This was an important year for me and many of the BAME UK community. It was the year A Level student Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack. The younger me is enthusiastic and hopeful about the future and is optimistic about what 2020 would look like, what the future would hold and that no future BAME generation would have to see, experience or feel part of an unfair and unjust society. I imagine myself looking at the young teenager in front of me who is about to go to university. He has his whole life ahead of him and I wonder how I to tell him that it’s the year 2020 and progress has stalled.

I remember leaving for university and witnessing the fear in my parents’ eyes, like it was yesterday. They worried about me going out and how the world around me saw a young brown male during a time when the BNP was at large. I don’t admit to knowing what it was like to be a Black male and understand some privilege associated with being an Asian male. I cannot begin to imagine the fear of black families with sons who are becoming young men. What I do know is how I catch myself watching my 18 year old turbaned son and thinking about how the world sees him. He went to a Black Lives Matter rally recently and I found myself more concerned about how he would be seen by the police than getting Covid-19. That cannot be right, can it? We were both born in this country and see ourselves as British but sometimes seeing what political leaders and supporters write positions us as outsiders?

So I focus the conversation with my younger self on technology. I explain how much closer the world has become and how mobile devices they have given people a platform to share how they feel, take photos and videos which can be shared globally instantly. I tell him that any question you have can get an instant answer, that information is readily available. If you want to learn something new or find out how to do something, you can view videos which will take you through the steps necessary to do it for yourself.

I leave this conversation in my mind and wonder what the future holds for me, my children and future BAME generations. I love FE and I enjoy seeing new students learning and developing. I get to see that transition from school life into adult life. It is an honour and a blessed thing to be part of. I do question however, whether the conversation about racism in another 27 years will remain the same. Will my son look at his children in the eyes of my father looking at me or the eyes of his father looking at him?

As a senior leader in FE, I am of the mind that anti-racism should be an integral part of our sector, the education and training we provide and how CPD is conducted. We have a collective responsibility to do this work which would be more worthwhile than the tick box equality and diversity approach which hasn’t worked since the 90s, because if it had, we wouldn’t still be in this position I realise #BLM is more complex than our sector but as educators we have a civic role to play. When I think about why matters of anti-racism are concealed under E&D departments, I realise that there is a huge discomfort in talking about race. So why do we expect BAME staff to have the emotional capacity to deal with the additional labour of enlightening their peers on all matters about race? It is problematic to ask those who might have had challenging experiences or a reluctance to see themselves as different especially when they have been conditioned not to talk about race.

White allyship is a necessity and this is a crucial time for FE leadership to recognise that #BLM is about unity and for us all to stand up for injustice in society. Sadly, I have seen little leadership in FE on this topic. There is a deafening silence and as a sector supposedly committed to often disadvantaged communities through education, I am stunned. Surely, we are places that promote social justice. Those who have spoken out, I applaud. The AoC and ETF know how important this is and are working hard to have this conversation but as a community of colleges and as educators, we must be present in this debate for central sector organisations.

Are we ready to have frank and brave conversations in colleges about systematic racism within the four walls of our offices and classrooms? Are we ready to discuss the FE stance on British colonial history in the FE curriculum? What messages are we sending out having never had a British born FTSE 100 chief executive from a BAME background? We need to have a more considered and systematic approach to not only raising aspirations but looking at other ways of supporting young people. One example might be providing mentoring opportunities for young black male students. I am in support of ‘fair is not equal and equal is not fair.’

Colleges take students from every background and numbers matter for our income. Our sector is multi-cultural and diverse. It is consistently at the forefront of community cohesion and we enjoy outwardly celebrating this. However, we talk about financial sustainability without the consciousness of the communities we claim to serve. If we did, we would have conscious leaders who would keep this matter at the fore and maintain a national if not international debate to advocate anti-racism. We have a lot to do. Not only should our BAME attainment gaps be equal but our leadership and governance be reflective of our student populations. I am not by any means the first to raise this issue but we have to play our civic role for social mobility and justice.  

We are not doing enough. We can do better not because it is an equality target but because we recognise the challenges of an unequal society. We recognise also, our role as leaders and educators to have a very clear position for a fairer society. Black Lives Matter is not a recent movement. Black lives have always mattered and it is time to stop the pretence that all things are equal. These conversations can start now in senior leadership team meetings so that we can start to reflect and learn for ourselves how we work together as a sector to support the work of the AoC and ETF. This race for a fairer society will not be achieved by Black people or BAME communities alone. So as Albert Einstein said “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.”

Palvinder Singh, Group Deputy Principal NCG, Kidderminster College reflects on a global movement.

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