It has been a fascinating eight months in this role of Director for Diversity at the Education and Training Foundation (@E_T_Foundation) and the Association of Colleges (@AoC_info) – a role that is a first for both organisations and a clear sign of the ambition and aspiration of the Further Education (FE) sector to take the lead on creating a culture of inclusion.
My initial observations from talking to Principals, staff, learners, and stakeholders is that the FE sector is committed to taking charge of real change on inclusion and diversity. There is also a consensus that its impact must be visible and should be drawn from the experience of learners, staff, and the local community.
Creating a culture of inclusion
We know that inequalities still exist in our society and that education has the transformative power to provide the equity that gives learners the 'leg up' to be socially mobile.
In the post 14 sector, our learners come from a range of different backgrounds and differ in many ways, including and not limited to: age, gender, disability, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and faith. They bring with them different learning styles, educational and cultural experiences, and as tutors and teachers, our job is to equip them with the skills to positively contribute to and work in a global and diverse world – no small task.
From my personal experience as a teacher, when learners are excluded, physically or emotionally, they are often more open to influences from those who would want to include them in their own groups and not always for the right reasons. On the other hand, learners who feel that they belong are more likely to see the value of education and have higher self-belief and confidence in their ability to succeed.
A question of identity
Learners tell us that as well. A recent report by the Student Commission on Racial Justice, a national student-led project, highlighted that 17% of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) respondents feel that they can't be themselves and must act differently in school, college or university because of their ethnicity or race. Some commented that it is necessary to suppress aspects of their identity to fit in to protect them against the impact of abuse or injustice they have experienced.
Over 3,000 young people aged 16–25 were interviewed for the report, and they tell us in no uncertain terms that to create an environment that is truly inclusive, we will need to openly explore the concept of identity and find ways for it to be recognised and valued in institutions. This raises questions as to how the curriculum can be improved so, for example, BAME learners have a sense of belonging. It is equally important for all learners to experience and recognise the reality, breadth, and depth of our black and minority ethnic history.
The ETF is working with its partners to support change. One such example is West Suffolk College which is embedding inclusion and equity by teaching black history throughout the year with a curriculum co-designed with their learners. In doing this, the college is taking the learning back out into the community to engage learners and the community through local project work. The college is also expanding its curriculum by incorporating the LGBTQ+ community and the work of women's rights. Such approaches across FE create a safe space for conversations to take place and facilitate the development of positive teacher-learner relationships.
Leading by example
There is also potential to build on examples such as the partnership between Bolton College and Greater Manchester Higher. This collaboration of universities and FE colleges around Greater Manchester has come together to change the mindset, develop the skills and raise the aspiration of its 7,000 plus learners to either go on to higher education, take up apprenticeships or to set up a business. Such partnership approaches demonstrate the anchoring role the FE sector can play in a local area.
We need more FE providers to follow their example and our mission at the ETF is to help facilitate this. We offer training opportunities like the Diversity in Leadership programme, which supports leaders, governors, and middle managers to stimulate cultural change within their organisation. We are already seeing managers and leaders progress into more senior roles after these programmes.
Increasingly, the ETF is also looking to enable organisations to build internal capability by mentoring leaders and managers from diverse backgrounds and supporting diversity projects to create an inclusive culture. Furthermore, the leadership hubs at our Centres for Excellence in SEND are promoting a self-improving system to support leaders in creating inclusive organisations.
These initiatives will provide an evidence base of what works and what does not, which we will share more widely across the sector. It is also fundamental that Governors and leaders have a clear idea of what inclusion and equity look and feel like in their organisations and have strategies for making the most of their diversity. Building on the ETF’s Governors Development and the Chairs' Leadership programmes, which focus on creating an inclusive organisation and developing inclusive practices, the ETF will be looking to work with a small number of providers to identify how their Boards and the leadership team are applying inclusion and diversity principles and practice to their organisations.
The learner’s voice
A key element of creating this change to a more inclusive culture is to empower young people to use their voice; provide them with a platform to speak out and be heard on experiences and issues surrounding exclusion and inclusion.
It is the role of organisations such as the ETF, WorldSkills, and the AoC to work with initiatives such as the Student Commission on Racial Justice to amplify these young people's voices and use the evidence base of this lived experience to inform their programme of work.
Ultimately, we want to bring about positive change across the sector and create a sustainable model that others can adapt or adopt. The learner's voice is paramount to this in setting the objectives for inclusion and helping us monitor our progress.
The ETF will be working with our partners AoC and WorldSkills in the Autumn conferences to raise the learner's voice and share examples of practitioner initiatives. Details of these conferences can be found on their websites, and I look forward to seeing more organisations coming forward to share their approaches to creating an inclusive environment for their learners.
Jeff Greenidge is Director for Diversity, at the Education and Training Foundation and Association for Colleges.
David Russell and Jeff Greenidge on what inclusion in the FE sector looks like
David Russell, CEO at the ETF, and Jeff Greenidge, Director for Diversity at the ETF and AoC, talk about what an inclusive FE sector looks like for learners, staff and stakeholders, and what their contribution is to making that happen.