IN THE future November 5 1999 may well be seen as a
landmark day for those interested in social justice in further education.
The launch of the Network for Black Managers' conference finally gave voice to an important interest group. This was evidenced by the attendance of many potential members, and the unequivocal support of the most influential people in the sector.
David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, enhanced his reputation as someone who speaks candidly about the existence of, and the pressing need to tackle, institutionalised racism in FE. And his keynote speech was notable in that it was supported by evidence gathered by the FEFC.
David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, also with an established anti-racist pedigree, was likewise forthright in his backing for the cause. In powerful support were Paul Mackney, leader of lecturers' union NATFHE, and the Association of College Managers' leader John Mowbray.
So with such powerful allies why do black managers need a network at all?
The answer was found in some glaring, disappointing absences at the conference. Although powerful and prominent people were there, the absence of others was conspicuous.
The principal of the venue college was there, as were the two black principals of mainstream FE colleges. One college, despite inspection in that week, sent a senior manager to represent it. But where were the other 429 principals? Without their active support, real progress is highly unlikely.
While it would be unwise to read too much into this almost universal absence, it is hard not to interpret it negatively - and all too easy to imagine that it reflects the low priority that race equality appears to have in the sector.
Another disappointing feature of the event was the evidence of gender imbalance still dogging the sector. The network's officers are largely male, and this does not reflect the fact that black women are, at least on anecdotal evidence, well represented in lower- and middle-management.
The rapid growth in the number of women principals has only benefited white women, with not one black woman among more than 100 now in post. Again, it's hard to ascribe this to race prejudice without objective evidence, but even harder not to see it in that light.
This glaring deficit was discussed at some length and the suggestion of some kind of strategic alliance with the Network for Women Managers to put this right will be vigorously pursued.
What is also clear is that we do need better evidence on which to plot our strategy.
We actually know about under-representation at the very top, because that count is easy to make. But we are less certain about senior and middle management representation, because those statistics don't exist. We need a base against which to judge future progress.
To achieve this we will need the help of the funding bodies and the active support and co-operation of college principals and corporations.
The moment has arrived when this nettle must be grasped. The turn-out at the conference indicated eloquently that those at the sharp end of debate are experiencing institutionalised racism.
We have the clear support of the two 'big guns', David Melville and Dave Gibson, men who have not just talked the talk about race equality, but walked the walk in the organisations they control.
The question was also raised at the conference about the opportunity, presented in the Government's post-16 reforms, for the establishment of a black college. Such colleges flourish in the United States, and effectively serve the aspirations of black students who believe that they are not well served in mainstream colleges. We are close to the stage at which it is feasible, indeed likely, that a successful consortium approach could be made to access both private and state funding.
While I personally would welcome such a development, it would serve as a damning indictment of FE's failure to overcome institutional racism with some positive action. The time for action is now.
Robin Landman is secretary of the Network for Black Managers