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Harness the power of positive role models

In five of the nine regions of England, there has been a decline in the number of college managers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the Annual Workforce Diversity Profile 2007. And in the other four regions, there has only been a small increase, says the report, which was published by Lifelong Learning UK.

There appears to be a multiplicity of factors causing the decline in some areas and lack of faster growth in others.

In contrast, learners from black and minority ethnic backgrounds make up a significant proportion of FE students - from 10 per cent in the North East to 57 per cent in Greater London. The visibility of staff from such backgrounds who have managerial responsibilities in colleges is important to provide the role models that black and minority ethnic colleagues and learners need. It is also worth noting that positive role models from the black and minority ethnic communities may have a profound and long-lasting influence that goes beyond the religious and race divide.

To avoid confusion in the discussion of role models, some clarification is necessary. The term "role model" first appeared in Robert K Merton's research into the socialisation of medical students when he hypothesised that individuals compare themselves with "reference groups" that occupy a role the individual aspires to.

It is important that we distinguish between inspirational and aspirational models. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama, Robin Cook, Mother Teresa and others may provide us with inspiration because of their beliefs, values, commitment to social justice, their integrity and the journeys they have travelled to achieve their goals. However, they cannot be role models for the majority of us, since we only get a snapshot of their lives and we do not aspire to the same roles.

I would also suggest that role models per se may not entirely determine our career choices, but they do influence the careers we choose. They certainly influenced me. In the 1960s, when I was studying A-levels at Stretford Technical College in Manchester, two lecturers, Mr Holden and Mr Overall, gave me the support, encouragement and guidance that allowed me to develop a career in further education.

Role models can influence us in terms of aspirations and their influence is enduring. It is important to note that they are not appointed - people become role models because of their innate characteristics and the progress they have made. People see in them elements that they admire and aspire to.

There are some characteristics that one would expect of a role model in the learning and skills sector. They should be passionate about learning, the needs of learners and the management of learning. They must also be highly visible and accessible. One would expect them to show cross- cultural sensitivity and awareness, as well as empathy with others. Naturally, they should display integrity, honesty and fairness in their dealings with students and staff, as well as a willingness to go that extra mile in pursuit of values and excellence.

It is interesting to note that such models change over time and place. For example, it is unlikely that senior bank executives would be chosen as role models today.

Let us open the debate on how role models could make a greater contribution in the learning and skills sector, and make a real, positive and enduring difference to the lives of the people we serve.

Ahmed Choonara, Former principal and chair of the Network for Black Professionals.

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