From education to employment

Reporter Vijay Pattni Looks Back

The Sun rises in the morning, writes FE News reporter Vijay Pattni. It sets in the evening. By all accurate accounts, it is very hot. And get this ““ as a bonus, it is very bright too.

Not only does it heat up the cosmos, it actually provides light. Now perhaps a bit controversially, this energy radiated from the Sun can actually be used to power stuff. No, not your compact SUV which sucks just enough out of the ozone layer to induce a mild form of skin cancer. But some boffins are actually working night and day on methods of harnessing this abundant source of energy so that perhaps, one day, you can drive your Range Rover to the local shops without afflicting Dolly the sheep.

So, now you know, let’s get the ball rolling. I am hereby announcing a conference to be held, on earth, the date and time of which has not yet been finalised. But I am in the process of gathering the brightest (excuse the pun) minds of our time to pontificate on the complexities of advanced solar technology. No doubt their research will be more than welcome on how to further the advancement of utilising this pivotal source of energy, and I am quite looking forward to hearing their views.

A Timetable?

We can perhaps discuss ways of using the Sun to end world hunger; create a nuclear armistice; bring peace to the Middle East and Birmingham; bring back Elvis and John Lennon from the grave. Maybe, just maybe, we can discuss the future, as I like to call it. Here is an itinerary, based on ““ for instance – this week’s Association of Learning Providers (ALP) conference.

10.00am ““ Coffee and Networking. 10.15am ““ Introduction from A.N.Other (Insert “celebrity”, depending on budget). 10.30am ““ “The Sun Is Very Hot” ““ Introduction by Professor S. Tate-Obvious. 11.00am ““ “The Sun ““ Centre Of The Universe Or Conspiracy Rattled Up By The Democrats?” ““ Essay by Dr. I.M. Paidtoomuch. 12.00pm-3.00pm ““ Over exaggerated Lunch break with time for more networking. 3.00pm ““ “Brightness And Warmth ““ The Sun, An Odyssey” ““ Lecture from”¦whoever. 4.00pm ““ Networking then close. Parking is not validated, but we may change our minds tomorrow.

So, any takers?

No, thought not. And despite having the brightest minds in the independent sector within FE all locked up in one suspiciously-titled hotel, the ALP “Partners in Learning” conference held this week was, to put it lightly, a little obvious. “We are facing significant skills challenges”, procrastinates an enthusiastic Bill Rammell MP. “We must address these skills development issues”, repeats a still-energetic Bill Rammell MP. “We still do not have the skills level to meet the global marketplace.”

The Minister of State for Lifelong Learning decided to then touch upon another fabled whipping boy of FE: that of Globalisation. “Our productivity lags behind Germany and France”. On the issue of the emerging “threat” of the Chinese economy: “We risk being blown away by the competition”. Indeed. But is this really fresh knowledge? Have all the “Partners in Learning” convened at what felt like an abandoned airport to be told this crusty nugget of yesterday’s news?


Perhaps. But more striking was a somewhat disheartening workshop session. Devised so that these independent providers could air their views on the provision of their service to best plug the oh-so-evident skills gap, they drowned in a garble of befuddled management speak telling us to “develop new strategies”. And, of these slightly confusing messages, emerged the statements of a Mr. Robin Landman. Heading up the workshop entitled “The Business Case for Recruiting and Developing a Diverse Workforce”, he rather nervously stumbled through an uneasy hour on the benefits of recruiting more from the ethnic minorities.

Now, I have to take this opportunity to applaud Mr Landman. My purpose here is not to berate him personally nor discount his entire thesis on diversity. It is to simply point out a few fallacies I noticed during his lecture. No doubt my phone and computer are already being tapped having simply mentioned the word diversity and, frankly, the money shot, “ethnic”.

This is something he raised also. “There has been a fear of discussing the issue”, he argued, and on this, I wholeheartedly agree. To warrant better understanding of a topic, you must first unwrap the political correctness surrounding it and then simply debate. That much is obvious. I know from my own turgid experience that talking through a difficult area of argument helps increase the understanding of it. Evidently, this last paragraph of text has been infused within the conference, so here goes, one more time: “Let’s talk about it openly, then we can understand each other.”

Shopping for Comments?

Making a curious observation he said: “When I go into Tesco’s, it reflects the local community. We [FE Institutions] are no different. If it’s good enough for Tesco’s, it’s good enough for us”. Indeed, but there is a concern about the method by which you want to make your company “like Tesco’s”. He did ambitiously point out that he lobbied for “Positive Action” and not “Positive Discrimination”. “One is illegal, the other is not”. In the famed words of Rolf Harris, can you guess which one it is yet?

So he wants, in his words, to “break down the barriers to allow Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups to enter the learning system”. Yet conversely: “Providers have been providing for learners, not specifically for BME groups”. Excuse my thinking on this, but I was always under the impression that Further Education was targeted at those who wanted to, well, learn. I didn”t realise there was another sector designed primarily for BME groups. Maybe that’s what all this faith school nonsense is about then”¦?

On Target or an Easy Target?

As I have mentioned the word “target”, lets talk a little about that too. Mr Landman produced a slide displaying the exact number of BME members employed within the higher echelons of FE, by region. London, being the multicultural melting pot, did distort the figures, yet elsewhere around the country, the picture was as obvious as the repetition in the conference: BME groups were seriously underrepresented. So he wanted to break down the barriers to encourage more ethnic minority groups to enter the system.

One question, which was picked up on in the workshop: How do you get them to apply if there’s nobody there to apply? Furthermore, why should there be a “target” to the number of BME members in any given FE institution? Surely, best practice would be to employ the best person for the job. Admirably, while FE providers continually beat themselves up on how much they are bending over backwards to accommodate more applications from ethnic minorities, the disturbing trend was to lower entrance criteria.

This, as anybody versed in the discourse of common sense, would inevitably tell you that singling out whole communities increases tension, building on hatred. Remember, much of racism is concerned with economic opportunity, and if these FE providers, and leaders of business, single out BME groups for favourable economic contracts, are they not sewing the seeds for future disrepute? FE can break down barriers to learning. It is doing so, and has done so. It simply provides education. Many of my old college friends were unperturbed by the lack of ethnic minority heads and teachers; they were more focused on doing well in their forthcoming exams.

No. Removing the obstacles to a diverse workforce means opening up communities and allowing everyone an opportunity. This Mr Landman agrees with as well. “We have to demystify the process of application to encourage a greater diversity of applicants”. But lowering entrance criteria, setting targets and singling out BME members for promotion and employment seem counter-intuitive. There are many factors involved in creating an equal society; one that will never come about if these measures are enforced.

Vijay Pattni

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