For us at Activate Learning, equality, diversity and inclusion have always been an important part of what we do, because it should be. If you walk around any of our colleges you will see the diverse range of people, mirroring the diverse communities that we serve.
However, the past year has sharpened our focus on the issues of racism – rightly so – following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the US and the resulting groundswell in the Black Lives Matter movement.
For me, as a mother of a mixed-race child, it gave me pause to consider everything I’ve done as a white leader within the FE sector. Had I challenged my own perspective on the issue of race and diversity enough?
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For me, watching my daughter grow up, I had witnessed first-hand the cruelty and intolerance that white society can have for people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
That is why I’ve always tried to surround myself with diversity, so that my views are always being challenged. From my partner, who is of Chinese descent, through to friends and colleagues from different ethnic backgrounds, I’ve always felt it was important to have a different perspective.
The events that proceeded George Floyd’s murder were unlike anything I’d seen before as a leader with the FE sector. I had colleagues coming to me asking me what we were going to do about what had happened and what position we were going to take.
I decided to go to my network of friends whose views I had trusted so much over the years; I read a lot around the issue. And it was uncomfortable.
When I read Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad, it really opened up my understanding of what white privilege and white supremacy actually is and how our societies and systems have played a part in perpetuating it.
I was determined to do more and make the organisation I lead and the sector I work in as progressive as possible. I wanted them to represent the values, beliefs and cultures of the diverse range of students that walk through the corridors of our colleges every day.
So, we asked our BAME staff how to take it forward with them. As a result of this, I now chair a group of interested staff across all seven of our colleges, and we discuss the issues we are facing as an educational organisation, both from an academic and operational perspective.
This group is set up of five sub-groups. One to look at our curriculum and its decolonisation; the second’s focus was mentoring our BAME staff; the third looked at how we recruit and select a broader base of staff and governors; the fourth looked at how we start to have difficult conversations about racism; and the fifth was focused on ensuring leadership understands unconscious bias and the impact of developing a culture of inclusivity and belonging.
What these groups have achieved so far is a review of our curriculum, looking at how we could decolonise what we teach in our classrooms to our learners. We want to ensure what we teach is not just inclusive, but also anti-racist in its focus.
We launched a dual mentoring programme for our black and ethnic minority staff who have aspirations of management, which also works to raise ethnic and cultural awareness among white senior leaders and help challenge unconscious bias.
We appointed an equality and diversity lead in the business for the first time, who will shape the ongoing work of our pre-existing equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) group. We have also seen gains in recruiting staff from diverse ethnic backgrounds into more senior roles. This included proactively appointing governors to our board from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, as we’ve wanted to ensure greater diversity and better representation at this level too.
I have also been working with a group of white principals from across the country, which has been specifically looking at the issue of white supremacy and how we can reduce its impact. This isn’t about tackling the far right, but rather looking at how our structures and ways of working are designed to advantage white people over those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
These are all important steps that we have made here at Activate Learning to improve equality, diversity and inclusion for our black and ethnic minority colleagues, but we recognise that there is more to do.
However, by implementing structures for feedback, putting in place systems to actively promote diversity and inclusion and by shifting the rhetoric from “we are not racist” to “we are anti-racist", it is my hope that the work we do with our staff will permeate down through to our learners and create a longer-lasting legacy for our communities.
Sally Dicketts is group chief executive at Activate Learning. This blog is part of a new Collab Group initiative examining issues around BAME diversity and inclusion within the further education sector.