From education to employment

Pride and Progress: Social Inclusion in Further Education and Skills

Ann and Katerina Exclusive

Proud but not complacent

With Pride month celebrations underway, in part one of this series of exclusives, Dr Katerina Kolyva, CEO of the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), and Dame Ann Limb, former Principal within Further Education (FE) colleges, current Pro Chancellor of the University of Surrey, Chair of the City & Guilds of London Institute, Chair of Governors of The Manchester College and Chair of the Lifelong Education Institute, discuss social inclusion in the FE and Skills sector and how that translates in terms of social inclusion of LGBTQI+ people, both within our workforce and for our learners.

How good are we at championing social inclusion in the FE and Skills sector?

Dame Ann Limb (AL):

I will use a bit of a cliché – we are on a journey. There is no doubt that we have commitment from across the sector to tackle issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. I think we’re probably a little bit further down that road than we were in terms of sharing good practice – in terms of what works, and what doesn’t work effectively. We might not have people who are at the end of the journey, but we have some pretty good examples now of how people are trying to tackle this whole agenda in a way that is moving towards excellence.

Dr Katerina Kolyva (KK):

What I see is that our sector reflects society. Ultimately as a society, we now talk more about inclusion, but there are some areas where we are better with action than in others. To me, the whole FE and Skills sector is about inclusion. When you think about social mobility, progression into employment, lifelong learning – whether you come to education just to upskill and move on to the next role, or whether you come to it after a long period of time away, or whether you do it towards the end of your life to support your physical or mental wellbeing – all of this is about inclusion. I recently spent some time with dementia patients who were taking part in an art programme, and who were talking very proudly and passionately about what they’ve learned through art and how this supported their mental health and wellbeing. What I love about the FE and Skills sector is that it contains all these different facets of inclusion. Inclusion certainly is a valuable asset of our sector and we need to be proud of that and celebrate it.

However, there’s still a lot of work to be done – and not just for our sector but for society as a whole. We’ve come a long way in terms of women’s representation, and in terms of how we address issues around age, both for younger learners and older learners, or younger teachers and older teachers who join the profession later in life. There is still a lot of work to do around race, sexual orientation and disability. We are celebrating Pride this month, but I do feel that in some quarters we are not getting the traction that we want or need and I am curious about why that is.


Great points, Katerina. Are we really championing inclusion and making it centre stage in everything? I think the answer is ‘not enough’. On your point about the FE and Skills sector reflecting society, the primary role of any FE and Skills provider is to listen to the needs of its learners, and to educationally satisfy them. Within that remit fall the emotional, psychological and environmental needs that complete the picture. Given the diverse nature of society and of life experiences within that, our learners bring with them a whole set of experiences that influence their learning. Are we making enough of that rich diversity, and learning from it

ourselves? The FE and Skills sector is key to the social mobility of the nation. Learning is key to breaking glass ceilings and helping to break barriers on topics such as LGBTQI+ and race. To effectively champion inclusion we need to think about the lived experiences of the society and communities that we serve, along with meeting the complex needs of learners. And we need to do that in a way that makes them feel that they belong and that they are included.

How does that translate to social inclusion of LGBTQI+ people within the sector, both in terms of our workforce and our learners?


As a gay woman, in the mainstream of the LGBTQI+ arena, I have to say social inclusion came quite late to this sector. It was only as recently as five years ago that I first spoke openly about being a gay woman, thanks to an opportunity created for open debate that truly reflected our workforce and learner populations, facilitated by the then chief executive of Worldskills UK. I agreed to be a part of the panel and then started to reflect and write openly about my own experience, and why it hadn’t been possible for me to be open about a part of my identity until then. Of course, there were very good reasons for not being open, including legal reasons, during the time I was a college principal from the mid 1980s until the turn of the century.

Social inclusion for the LGBTQI+ community has progressed a long way since then, with the FE and Skills environment opening up massively. Whilst that’s good, we should not forget the number of people who still are not out to their families, or at work. I don’t know for certain that this is still an issue in many FE and Skills settings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. I’m sure that in the same way that our sector reflects society in all its positive diversity, there is still also misogyny and homophobia. We have to find a way of tackling those attitudes in a humane way, but a way that’s safe for all people concerned. That’s why it’s key to have months like Pride Month. It’s critical that we find ways of talking about issues of inclusivity openly.


It is really encouraging to hear how far we’ve come in terms of Ann’s experience. As a heterosexual woman, with friends, family members, colleagues, and bosses representative of the LGBTQI+ community, I have been truly inspired by the courage of those who openly, or less openly, come out, depending on context. And being out does depend on so many things, because if you don’t have an environment that is open and inclusive and allows you to speak up, then you are facing an uphill struggle.

I’ve learned a lot from the LGBTQI+ people in my life; irrespective of role, irrespective of country that they were from or living in, they all said that the most important thing for them was being in a supportive environment. In our sector, the students and learners have played a big role in this debate because they have created an atmosphere of hope and enthusiasm. They have pushed the debate about LGBTQI+ rights forward, and by doing so they have contributed to open and supportive learning, which also empowers our teachers and educators to join in this debate.

We shouldn’t take for granted that there are still pockets of society where there is still reluctance to support, where people say “oh, this is all too much” and where questions like “why are you doing all this and why is it important?” are still being asked. In certain quarters, I’ve heard “We tolerate. Isn’t that enough? We are doing the legal bit, we are not discriminating” more often than I would have liked.

Ann has touched on generational change. Geopolitics also play a role here. In London today, we talk openly about social inclusion, about race, gender and sexual orientation. I’m not sure this speaks to every single place within the UK. We take for granted that we can have this open debate that is not possible in many other places – including in what are seen as progressive countries in Europe, for starters. We still have a very long way to go.


I think it’s helpful to remind learners and staff of that point because we can become quite complacent about living in a democracy or disillusioned with the political system in place. In so many countries around the world, you can’t be openly gay, and that’s quite significant for Britain in this global word.

In the FE and Skills sector, we can be a bit insular too. Raising these issues and having an open debate helps us get out of our own little holes. It is also important that we raise the issue here of intersectionality between LGBTQI+ and race and religion. It is difficult for people from certain cultures, races and religions to accept being gay. As an example, you cannot get married if you are two homosexual men in the Church of England. Monitoring the progress we have made and celebrating that is an important part of what we’re doing during months like Pride.


Talking of celebrations and how far we have come, I was in Manchester earlier this month and was enthused by the Pride celebrations everywhere. Every single shop, museums, galleries and landmarks were all decked out in Pride colours, including the Manchester bee sporting the rainbow colours of Pride.


That is lovely to hear. It brings an important point about leadership for social inclusion to the fore. The CEO of Manchester Pride, Mark Fletcher, is a colleague of mine and a governor of Manchester College. He has been working together with Manchester City Council and the Greater Manchester mayoral combined authority to respond to their citizens. This mirrors how we respond to the needs of our learners across the sector when it comes to belonging and inclusion.

By Dr Ann Limb, former Principal within Further Education (FE) colleges, current Pro Chancellor of the University of Surrey, Chair of the City & Guilds of London Institute, Chair of Governors of The Manchester College and Chair of the Lifelong Education Institute and Dr Katerina Kolyva, CEO of the Education and Training Foundation (ETF)

Related Articles