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FE and Race Equality: A lost decade of carelessness and complicity?

Robin Landman OBE CCMI

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced many nations and organisations globally to examine themselves – their policies, but most importantly, their practices – and the extent to which they can truly say they are anti-racist.

In my view, the UK FE colleges sector doesn’t stand up well to close scrutiny. The Macpherson Report of 1999 resulted in the Commission for Black Staff in FE being set up, supported by all sector organisations.

When it reported in 2002 – “Challenging racism: further education leading the way” – it set out a comprehensive set of recommendations which provided that solid foundation for FE to build on, at a time of unprecedented levels of funding for education.

The Foster Review also challenged colleges to do better on Race Equality. It could have been expected, that despite a decade of austerity since 2010, a sector that styles itself as strong on social justice would have revisited and updated the Commission’s, and Andrew Foster’s recommendations on a regular basis, and had a strong track record to boast about now.

Instead, its record has been one of complacency and carelessness. This is despite the fact that it had strong foundations to build on.

Sharp decrease in Black and minority representation in college leadership

Black and minority representation in college leadership has decreased sharply, from 13% in 2017 to circa 5% now. There is no data at sector level for second tier and below, because the sector decided some years ago that it too onerous to collect it, nor is there data on representation of governors, for the same reason.

Beyond colleges, the picture is even worse. The Association of Colleges, Education & Training Foundation and Society for Education and Training have always had 100% White leadership teams, and historically near non-existent Board level representation, with the exception of AoC’s current (and laudable 7%). AoC has never had a minority ethnic President.

To my knowledge the FE Commission has never had a single BAME person in its ranks, and Ofsted had only 5% of all its HMI from BAME backgrounds in 2018. All these organisations have all the necessary ED&I policies and procedures that are a legal requirement, but none of them appear to have put them into practice, nor asked themselves really searching questions about their failure to walk the talk on Race Equality and anti-racist practice.

At the same time, student representation has continued to climb, and is currently at 30% nationally (2019-20 AoC figures, averaged), while the UK minority ethnic population comprises 14% of the total.

This is a phenomenal over-representation that begs the question why? Is it because minority ethnic students find it harder to access employment, and seek to boost their CVs? In any business sector, there would be some serious research done to understand this level of engagement.

FE colleges sector has had so little to say

This litany of failure may be the reason why the FE colleges sector has had so little to say in response to the pressure from the global and national BLM movement. Like their counterparts in Higher Education, colleges have made “tokenistic and superficial” statements of support on their websites, kicking the can down the road with promises to do better in future.

The AoC has been quick to advise colleges on how to respond to the BLM phenomenon, but has failed to issue any public statement itself. Why?

The sad fact is that FE colleges and the bodies that support and regulate them have lapsed into a tick box attitude to racism – been there done that, time to move on to the next agenda item. In the heyday of the sector, following unprecedented cash injections from New Labour, and with organisations such as the Network for Black Professionals (NBP) asking awkward questions, real progress was made from a low base.

It’s fair to acknowledge that this was supported by some sympathetic leaders of the AoC, FEFC, trade unions and significant numbers of progressive principals. It seems, however, that when the money dried up and austerity set it, this issue was put to one side and racism was subsumed into anodyne ED&I policies that lumped all diversity strands into one nebulous mass while more important financial priorities took precedence.

Nobody would reasonably argue that the years of austerity have been easy for the colleges sector, but it certainly has gone backwards as far as Race Equality is concerned. Austerity was a test for the sector of what really mattered, and clearly Race Equality didn’t matter.

In addition to this retrograde trend, I would contend that the sector has colluded in the creation of a hostile environment in which a number of hitherto successful and publicly recognised minority ethnic principals have been driven out by unsubstantiated public smears by sections of the sector press. All these cases were met by silence, most notably from “the voice of the sector”.

Unsurprisingly, many principals – Black, Asian and White – now prefer to keep a low profile, so the BAME representative voice is further suppressed.

What is the route, if any, out of this sorry, and avoidable, state of affairs?

I’ll make some suggestions – by no means a comprehensive list but a start. It’s time the most reviewed of all the education sectors (why is that?) found its collective voice. With the FE White Paper imminent and the final report of the College Commission due in the Autumn, it’s important that the sector adopts a more assertive posture in the debate that sets out its future direction.

  • I think a public mea culpa from the sector bodies is an important starting point. Not something that needs dwelling on, but an important line in the sand from which to measure progress;
  • Immediate action to address the leadership deficit in sector bodies. In the short term this can be done by secondments and short term appointments, but steps must be taken to ensure that business as usual is not an option now, and in future;
  • Board representation must be changed – by colleges and sector bodies – either using the national student profile or local populations as a measure. Co-options can be used as a temporary measure so that immediate emblematic changes can be made;
  • Colleges can require recruitment agencies to present them with diverse shortlists as a means of at least begin to change the profile of college leaders. In the past, AoC Recruitment under Peter Daley – who had a personal commitment to Race Equality – was instrumental in changing the profile of FE leadership. There’s nothing to prevent this being the case today;
  • Concerted action must be taken to address the attainment gap for BAME students. This requires detailed analysis by a range of indices;
  • The under-representation of BAME students in Apprenticeships is unforgiveable. Colleges are not in control of all the answers, but they must be a strong and assertive voice in changing this;
  • The EHRC conducted an inquiry into the racial harassment experienced by university students last year. If it did the same for FE, would the results be very different? How would we know? I’d suggest colleges act on this before their own students bring the same complaints forward;
  • The sector must resist the temptation to use kite marks as an easy cop out. Many colleges and sector bodies have e.g. Investors in Diversity status, despite their obvious lack of diversity, so demonstrably they are not the answer.

It will not be comfortable for the sector to address this issue, but it must bite the bullet. In this age of social media, it’s only a matter of time before students and others ask awkward questions, and in the post-George Floyd era, young people use the metric that silence means complicity.

Back in 1996, I wrote a similar article in the periodical published by the Association for Colleges. Then, the only response was from Wally Brown, Principal of Liverpool Community College – the only minority ethnic principal in the country.

Our subsequent meeting led to an agreement that we needed to establish a network along the lines of the one promoting gender equality, which duly resulted in the Network for Black Managers (later the NBP).

It will be fascinating to see what response this article, 24 years on, generates. Hopefully there will be more than one response, and they won’t be ones of denial and defensiveness.

Robin Landman OBE CCMI

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