From education to employment

Reflections on championing Inclusive Professionalism 

Vikki Smith

Following a keynote address at AELP’s recent EDI Summit, Dr Vikki Smith, Executive Director of Education and Standards at Education and Training Foundation (ETF), shares her reflections on championing inclusive professionalism in the context of ETF’s commitment to Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (EDIB) and its importance to the Further Education and Skills sector – especially to tutors and trainers who deliver a myriad of transformative opportunities to learners.  

The world of education, in its broadest sense, is undergoing a profound transformation, and our sector is no exception. As we find ourselves at the crossroads of this change, one common thread binds us all – our commitment to nurturing the talents and aspirations of every individual; be it the learners that we tutor and train or the dedicated professionals working within our organisation. Yet, as we navigate this journey, we must acknowledge that our sector faces several challenges on the road to inclusivity.  

Unmasking disparities within the sector  

In the 2021/22 academic year, 11.1% of Further Education (FE) leaders identified as belonging to an ethnic minority group. Within this, only 3.4% identified as Asian or Asian British, and a mere 1.6% as Black or Black British. There are disparities in access to education, diverse learning needs, and evolving technologies. For example, in STEM-related apprenticeships, men outnumber women at a staggering 9:1 ratio. Also, individuals with learning difficulties or disabilities represent only 15.1% of those currently pursuing apprenticeships, raising questions about accessibility. 

Those who are Black, receive free school meals, have special educational needs, disabilities, are in the care system, or belong to Gypsy/Roma or Traveller communities face higher risks of exclusion and lower grades. Similarly, the prison system sees a disproportionate entry of individuals who are Black or have special educational needs or disabilities. 

These statistics serve as a stark reminder that we have much room for improvement, not solely in education but at every level of our society. We need a representative workforce and curriculum to enable us to thrive, but this begs the question of what is inclusive workforce development? To me, it is the unwavering belief that every individual, regardless of their background, abilities, or circumstances, deserves an equal opportunity to learn, progress and succeed. It’s about recognising the diversity within our ‘learning’ settings and workplaces and harnessing that diversity to create a stronger, more vibrant FE and Skills ecosystem. 

Striving to be inclusive 

As we craft environments that embrace diversity and equality, we unlock the full potential of our staff and students, providing them the opportunity to not just succeed but to thrive. In doing so, we harness the richness of varied perspectives, equipping our learners with the essential skills they need to navigate the complexities of the modern world. But it goes beyond empowering; inclusivity creates a profound sense of belonging. It ensures that we do not leave anyone behind and that no voice goes unheard. 

Recently, ETF sponsored Tutor of the Year award at Festival of Learning. This year’s winner, Emma Iliffe, a tutor at City Lit, passionately spoke about breaking down barriers and strengthening bonds. Emma, who is deaf and was denied signed education as a child, is now a beacon of inspiration. Her driving force is the desire to support hearing students in learning and developing their own language skills. “When you learn BSL, you learn not only a language, but a whole culture,” says Emma. Her words capture the essence of what we should all be striving for in terms of inclusive workforce development and inclusive learning environments. 

To truly champion inclusivity, we must adopt a multifaceted approach. This includes providing ongoing training and opportunities for the training workforce at all levels, developing inclusive curricula, and looking at how we ensure that the physical and digital spaces where learning occurs are accessible and representative. We must also actively engage with our local communities, students, and staff at all levels to build a culture where inclusivity isn’t a buzzword but a way of life.  

ETF’s support to the sector 

At ETF, we aim to promote EDIB through our work and to maximise the diverse range of talent across the FE and Skills sector. We do this by supporting providers and staff with developing, sharing and embedding effective EDIB practice, and by working with the sector to remove barriers to continuing professional development (CPD), increase workforce opportunity and promote positive staff and learner experiences.  

Our new Inclusive FE pages include a spotlight section that is updated regularly with key content, plus there’s additional pages focused on resources and toolkits, courses and CPD, as well as the latest blogs, podcasts and news. We also offer the Inclusive leadership programme – which help to build a cohort of senior leaders who embrace EDIB at the heart of their leadership approach; Practitioner research programme – uncovering hidden academics and scientists and Advancing EDI in Further Education – open to everyone in FE.  

I urge everyone to commit to becoming agents of positive change within our organisations. It’s time to go beyond complacency and proactively think about the actions we can take to uplift our marginalised colleagues and learners. We understand that change isn’t effortless; that it requires champions. So, let’s rise to the occasion and become champions of inclusive workforce development in the FE and Skills sector. 

By Dr Vikki Smith, Executive Director of Education and Standards at Education and Training Foundation (ETF)

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