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Councils need genuine diversity

THE FURTHER education landscape is being irrevocably altered as the valedictory year of the FE Funding Council starts with recruitment of senior staff for the Learning and Skills Council.

As is the way of such things, some in the sector will be pleased to see the back of the FEFC. Others might become misty-eyed about its departure - at least we know and understand it.

Many will be anxious about what the new councils - national and local - will mean for our day-to-day professional life, and what influences they will wield over our hard-won independence.

From the perspective of the black communities of this country, the recruitment process for chairs and senior managers of the council represents a one-off opportunity for the Government to substantiate its statements about commitment to equality.

The previous Tory administration's purpose in setting up the FEFC was unequivocal and the early years of the council were characterised by its lack of commitment to the principle of extending equal opportunities to the black people of this country.

The raising of this item on the agenda was largely due to the personal commitment of David Melville, but the extent to which good diversity practice could be embedded into the day-to-day work of the council was diluted because it was being applied as an addendum after the foundation stones had been laid.

Places on the council itself - as well as senior posts - could only be filled as they became vacant. As a result, the representation of black people at all levels has remained at an embarrassingly low level, notwithstanding the best efforts of the chief executive.

With the appointment of a national LSC chair and a chief executive, and with 47 local learning and skills councils, the Government now has the opportunity to start as it means to continue.

It must begin with the national council and ensure adequate representation there. Locally, it must reflect the wealth of ethnic and cultural diversity in our metropolitan areas. Crudely speaking, demographics alone require the appointment procedures to yield at least three black chairs of local councils and the same number of local executivedirectors. When the dust settles after the appointment of local council members, with a maximum number of 752 places at stake, at least 45 of these need to be black. Clearly, this is a crude approach and it would be asinine to expect such a device to be applied in this process. But surely natural justice requires consideration of the appropriate mechanism to be used now - so that diversity practice is embedded, rather than applied as a veneer after the fact.

And that's not all. Once the selection of chairs and executive directors is complete, other staffing will need to be addressed. This will require many new appointments, and those appointed will be able to exercise genuine influence over the socio-economic life of their localities.

There will be Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) considerations to take into account. Many will simply be transferred from current posts, but there is still scope for a significant number of black appointments.

Job descriptions indicate that each local learning and skills council will consist of 80-90 staff, which means that at least 225 of those appointments should be of black women and men. It is crucial - to use the language of the LSC literature - to "walk the talk" - particularly in the metropolitan areas of London, Birmingham, the east Midlands and other cities with culturally- and ethnically-rich populations. In these areas, the above figures should be treated as indicative, rather than maximal. The scandal of Birmingham, which does not have a black college principal, must not be allowed to be replicated in the new funding body.

This time there are no excuses. The Government is seeking business and community candidates with substantial business experience, and many of the most dynamic business people in England come from the black communities.

To its credit, the Government has put the words "equal opportunities" in all council documentation and recruitment literature. Let us hope that those words will be translated into action and we will see black faces on the new landscape.

Robin Landman, an educational consultant, is secretary of the Network for Black Managers.

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