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'College leadership is completely unrepresentative of the population we serve'

The silence surrounding the lack of BME principals in the sector is bizarre, writes Andy Forbes, principal of The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London

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The silence surrounding the lack of BME principals in the sector is bizarre, writes Andy Forbes, principal of The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London

The findings of the new FE workforce data from the Education and Training Foundation, reported in TES on Friday, reveal an apparent pay gap in colleges, with ethnic minority non-teaching staff earning significantly less on average than their white British colleagues. It also concludes that women and ethnic minority staff are less likely than men and white British staff to hold senior managerial positions. This got me thinking about my recent experiences in London.

I’m new to working in London, having only started as college principal in April 2015. I didn’t have much time to settle in before the government announced its intention to review all FE and sixth-form colleges in England. By November I found myself attending an event at City Hall to launch the London area review, where the chairs of governors and principals of all 53 London colleges were gathered.

Here I was in the UK’s most ethnically diverse city, being addressed by Munira Mirza, the deputy mayor for education and culture. I had already learned that an estimated 40 per cent of Londoners and 44 per cent of London college students are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background. This struck me as exciting; part of the buzz of being in a city with a serious claim to being a world-leading business centre.

But imagine my astonishment at looking around the room at the audience of more than 100 leading lights in London’s FE sector, and seeing a sea of white faces. By my count, less than five of us were visibly of a BME background. This wouldn’t have surprised me in the East of England, where I had previously worked, but it certainly did in London.

Just for the avoidance of doubt I have no problem with anyone’s ethnicity or with the idea that people should achieve top management and leadership roles on merit, not via cronyism, political correctness or any other back-door process. But surely it’s an issue if the leadership of a sector which promotes the idea of everyone reaching their potential is so completely unrepresentative of the population it serves?

'A sea of institutional indifference'

I’ve since done some research, which was surprisingly difficult since no one seems to keep up-to-date information on the composition of London’s FE workforce. The latest figures – which go back to 2012-13 – indicate that less than 8 per cent of FE senior managers in English colleges are BME. There are no figures available for London colleges. From a quick headcount of my fellow college principals, I calculate that the grand total is – wait for it – five, of whom only three are permanent, long-term appointments. So arguably the true figure is three. I make that less than 6 per cent.

I haven't got round to carrying out a survey of those in the next tier down, but based on my attendance at events and conferences I'd be very surprised if there were more than a dozen BME senior executives in the whole of London’s FE sector.

What's the reason for this? In a city that had just elected a mayor of Pakistani origin, in a sector overseen by a secretary of state who is also of Pakistani origin, in a country whose prime minister is personally leading a campaign about the under-representation of black students in top universities, this is bizarre, to say the least. Even weirder is the fact that no one is talking about it. 

Is this a case of the emperor with no clothes? Is it just too shocking to mention? Or has the debate about BME under-representation now been consigned to history, like arguments over whether VHS is better than Betamax? Apparently not in Sajid Javid's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which has just launched an inquiry into the barriers BME people face in the labour market. Perhaps the leader of the review, Baroness McGregor-Smith, should start with the London FE sector as a case study.

I'm baffled. Is it because there are not enough BME people working in London FE colleges? Is it a lack of encouragement, mentoring or training? Is the problem with the governing bodies of colleges, who are responsible for the most senior appointments? We need far better information on the FE workforce – the bits and pieces available are outdated and incomplete – and far more focus on the issue as an important one.

I'm reaching the end of my career so I have no personal axe to grind. But I feel it would be a great shame and an extraordinary irony if I were to leave the FE sector in the same way I came in 30 years ago – one of a small number of BME professionals in a sea of institutional indifference. Most importantly, it's hard to believe that a sector can serve a global city such as London without leadership that better reflects the wonderful diversity of its people.

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