Diversity in FE leadership: 'We have a long way to go'

We need a sustained and meaningful approach with long-term outcomes, writes AoC's Kirsti Lord

Kirsti Lord

College leadership: we need a sustained and meaningful approach to diversity

This year has been one for firsts and finding ourselves in a situation quite unlike anything any of us has ever experienced before. Although there is one thing I’ve spent quite a bit of this year so far discussing that is not new at all. In fact, the issue has been around forever, and I’m sorry to say a lot of the work has stalled on it: equality and diversity. What it means to people, the experiences of diverse staff in further education and, crucially, why there isn’t more diversity.

While there has been no formal data collection on the diversity of college leaders for some time, we know that the proportion of black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) principals and chief executives in the sector has fallen over the past five years (from a peak of approximately 13 per cent in 2015 to around 6-7 per cent in 2020). 

The decrease in BAME leadership is a real concern when considering how the diversity of student communities is represented in college management and the lack of role modelling and diversity of thinking within the sector that results from such low numbers of BAME leaders.   


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A sustained and meaningful approach

The Association of Colleges (AoC) has written to the Department for Education, proposing a number of strands of work to increase the recruitment and development of BAME staff to improve the pipeline of BAME leaders within the sector. 

It is clear that any such work needs to be built on research, understanding the lived experience of BAME staff within colleges and requires a sustained and meaningful approach with long-term outcomes, rather than small-scale, short-term programmes with limited impacts.

Government investment in the development of BAME middle leaders to prepare for senior positions was at its height in the 2000s, with projects such as the Black Leadership Initiative. These dwindled by 2010 and reporting at the time noted little impact from these projects. One could argue that the impact of these initiatives took time, as opportunities within the sector fell in line with college mergers and a general recession; the proportion of BAME principals almost doubled between 2010 and 2015, suggesting that there may well have been a measurable impact over a longer timescale.

The DfE has responded to our letter and we are now linking this into our equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) steering group to support them in shaping future initiatives, learning from past work and ensuring that targets have a view to the longer-term future and that funding follows this.

The AoC is currently delivering the ETF programme in Diverse Leadership, a project that involves training boards on unconscious bias and offering mentoring for BAME governors who aspire to be chairs and BAME managers who wish to be principals and chief executives in the future. This is a relatively small project but significant, as it indicates that lack of diversity has been recognised as an issue. 

The diversity of board members remains a challenge in the sector with the recruitment of governors being difficult regardless of ethnicity or any other protected characteristic, particularly since the insolvency regime was introduced in 2019. This is, however, the area that could potentially achieve the most significant and swift progress in diversifying the leadership of a college, as search committees look to future recruitment of skills and attributes when terms of office end. Our services team has developed a governor recruitment offer which focuses on diversity in response to our growing concern around the lack of this on many boards.

'We have a long way to go'

At the AoC, we have a very undiverse senior management team and are working to create a structure and process where we can develop and support our BAME staff into senior roles. We recognise the distance we need to travel as an organisation to offer modelling of good practice to our members.

None of this will happen overnight and further education doesn’t exist in a bubble; it is impacted by the lack of diversity in all areas of society. The recent global protests and people from all walks of life speaking out against injustice towards marginalised groups has shown we have a long way to go.

I am committed to having the progressive conversations about making change inside the AoC and outside of it. There is a wealth of great leadership in the sector and we must harness it and all play a role to truly reflect the students that we serve.

Kirsti Lord is the deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges and chair of the AoC's Diversity and Inclusion board

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