A dearth of college managers from ethnic minority backgrounds is being addressed by an ambitious new initiative. Neil Merrick reports
Dharwinder Sohanpal could not believe her eyes when she first walked into Canterbury College towards the end of last term. Walking around the classes and corridors there, she couldn't help noticing that her own face seemed to be the only non-white one in the building.
"It was a real culture shock," says Ms Sohanpal, who is on a one-year secondment from Waltham Forest College in east London under a programme to encourage more black staff to become senior managers.
"Cultural diversity here is limited but that is par for the course when you move out of London," she adds. "It took me a while to get used to it."
Ms Sohanpal is the college's first community development manager for progression - a new post which was hard to fill until the college heard about the Black Leadership Initiative.
Launched last year with a pound;600,000 grant from the Learning and Skills Council, the BLI aims to find secondments for 10 black staff as well as mentors for a further 30, a move that will help black and minority ethnic staff to move up the promotion ladder.
Ms Sohanpal learned about the initiative through an advert in The TESin February. After sending off an application, she was contacted within a few days and was soon heading to Kent for an interview, and later got the post.
The secondment, which could turn into a permanent appointment, appears to be a win-win situation for both parties. At Waltham Forest, where about 75 per cent of students are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, Ms Sohanpal was one of just three first-line curriculum managers from such a minority background. She is loath to go into detail about her experiences there - suffice it to say she was finding it hard to gain a more senior post. During her 12 months at Canterbury, she hopes to gain crucial middle-management experience to add to her CV.
Canterbury had created the new post as part of its attempts to widen participation and reach beyond its mainly white student intake.
Responsibilities include access courses, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and short Open College Network programmes.
"We interviewed on a number of occasions and chose not to appoint," says Andy Davis, assistant principal and Ms Sohanpal's line manager. "It's always good to bring new people in. They take a different perspective and give a variety of views based on their experience."
Just 3.5 per cent of Canterbury's students are black or minority ethnic and you can count the black staff on one hand. Wendy Wilton, community development manager for outreach, says the information Ms Sohanpal brought from London and elsewhere has been extremely useful. "It is a different experience working here," says Ms Wilton. "I think she has found it much more relaxed."
Improving diversity among college managers is one of the key aims of the new Centre for Excellence in Leadership, which is to be officially launched on Wednesday.
The initiative aims to tackle some of the glaring problems that were highlighted in last year's report by the Commission for Black Staff in FE.
At the time of the report, just two college principals in England were from minority ethnic backgrounds. Although this figure has since doubled, it still represents less than 1 per cent.
Rajinder Mann, director of the BLI and chair of the Network for Black Managers, says black staff gain as many qualifications as other lecturers but hit a glass ceiling at middle-management level.
Whereas first-line and middle managers are appointed by other staff, senior appointments are made by governors. "Representation on governing bodies is very white, middle-class and male," she says.
At present, four secondments are underway and another two are in the pipeline. Ms Mann concedes that there have been some problems working around the academic year, while some colleges have been reluctant to release staff.
But she praises Canterbury for its commitment to the initiative.
"It's not just a tick-box exercise for them," she says. "The principal and senior management team are fully committed and organisational change is driven by leadership."
Back at Canterbury, Dharwinder Sohanpal has been allocated two mentors - quality manager Lyn Brown and Wendy Wilton. So far, her daily meetings with the latter have mainly consisted of discussing what is going on and working out how to overcome any problems that have arisen. "We have a natter and a whinge," says Ms Wilton.
Ms Sohanpal was born in Preston and started working as an administrator at the local college 12 years ago. Her parents were both born in India. "My dad worked in the cotton mills and my mum was a housewife. They were both illiterate," she says.
After training to be a teacher, she taught IT and ESOL for eight years before moving to London and working briefly at Lambeth College. She moved to Waltham Forest in April 2002.
At Canterbury, she spends three hours per week teaching ESOL and is also completing a Certificate in Education, on top of her management duties.
While she is enjoying the secondment, Ms Sohanpal does emphasise that black managers must not be automatically placed in charge of areas such as ESOL, basic skills and widening participation in FE.
"Ethnicity should not come into it - it's about individuality and that should never be forgotten," she says.
THE ROAD TO EQUALITY: SOME MAJOR TURNING POINTS
1998: Network for Black Managers in Further Education established to combat discrimination and raise profile of black lecturers. Figures show that black people make up 6 per cent of lecturers and 12 per cent of students, although just 2 per cent of college managers.
1999: Macpherson report into the murder of London teenager Stephen Lawrence finds there is institutional racism in the police service and calls on public sector bodies to examine their recruitment and promotion procedures.
Membership of the Network for Black Managers grows to 250.
2000: Commission for Black Staff in FE launched to look at race inequality.
The Further Education Funding Council announces that Standards Fund money will be made available to tackle under-representation of black staff in senior posts.
2001: Interim report from the Commission for Black Staff calls on major bodies, including the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council to take their share of responsibility.
2002: Commission's final report sets out wide-ranging recommendations for colleges, inspectors and government bodies. Staff should be aware of colleges' race equality policy and take action where this is contravened.
Black Leadership Initiative launched to provide support for black managers seeking promotion.
2003: First secondments and mentorships under BLI.