If you ask those working in further education – and, in fact, the same applies to education more generally – most would like to think of themselves and the institutions they work in as open, tolerant and inclusive.
Colleges, in particular, pride themselves on this. It is crucial, considering the role they play in the lives of many of their students – particularly those straight from school. College, as George Ryan puts it this week, is where they “get a chance to start afresh” and maybe for the first time get an opportunity to be themselves. This will particularly be the case for many students in the LGBT community.
And of course, there will be members of the LGBT community among the college staff, too. Colleges have to work hard to make sure both students and staff feel welcome, respected and accepted in the FE community. There are countless examples across the sector where institutions are making a real and concerted effort with designated staff, making sure LGBT issues are highlighted and equality is promoted. A major survey of young LGBT people’s views in Scotland recently suggested that they find colleges – and universities – much more welcoming places than schools (see bit.ly/ReportLGBT).
That is not to say there are no issues. FE in many ways is a mirror of society – and therefore deeply entrenched prejudices and assumptions will inevitably find their way into institutions. Past research has shown that many LGBT students and staff encounter harassment or bullying in colleges. But institutions do their best to stress that kind of behaviour as unacceptable – and student associations host events and campaigns to foster the kind of environment they want their colleges to be.
So it was, to be honest, a surprise to me to see that only one FE college made the top 100 in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index – the charity’s list of those organisations that have done especially well promoting LGBT inclusion in the workplace. This is not a one off – a closer inspection of the list shows that, aside from Newham College in London, only two other UK colleges have made the ranking in the last 10 years – none from Scotland.
Part of this could of course be that FE colleges simply choose not to engage with the Stonewall index, which means they cannot make the list – and that therefore their absence is no indication of the quality of inclusion work that goes on. But, frankly – why aren’t they? Universities are on the index in larger numbers and clearly view this as a worthwhile exercise. So why don’t colleges?
This isn’t about some sort of token effort. It isn’t about yet another plaque near the front entrance, heightening an institution’s worthiness score for everyone to see.
It is about giving priority to something that affects thousands in the sector and should matter to all of us. Why not send a signal that this matters to FE? Not just to the generations of students – but also to FE staff.
We have all had that moment, stepping through the doors on the first day in a new job. Would it really make no difference to the level of nerves and apprehension if you knew that the institutions you had come to join cared about you and your inclusion – and went through the effort of proving that at a national level?