Away from the comfortzone

21st January 2005 at 00:00
June Jarrett left Hackney behind for a principalship in leafy, overwhelmingly white Hampshire. Joe Clancy reports

June Jarrett is used to standing out in a crowd. At educational conferences, she is regularly one of just a handful of black faces in a sea of senior managers.

Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the culture shock she felt when she took on her current role as principal of a college in a small town in a leafy shire.

"I took a walk down the high street to count the (non-white) faces and there weren't any," she said. "It was as if I was the only black person in town."

She left her "comfort zone" of Hackney in east London, where the ethnic-minority population exceeds 60 per cent, to take on a top job at Cricklade college in Andover, Hampshire, where it is just 2 per cent.

She was appointed vice-principal in September, becoming principal within a term.

In doing so, she became only the second black woman principal of an FE college in England, following Stella Mbubaegbu, principal of Highbury college in Portsmouth, also in Hampshire.

Ms Jarrett said the fact that there are just six black principals among the 480 FE colleges in the UK illustrates the struggle that black and ethnic-minority staff face in further education.

She added: "I really think that for a long time black and ethnic- minority staff haven't been given opportunities for promotion, or provided with the necessary support and staff development that would enable them to rise up the ranks.

"That is where the Network for Black Managers and the Black Leadership Initiative has been so instrumental in supporting people through mentoring and secondment programmes to show people what they can be capable of and to help them fulfil their potential.

"Previously, they did not have the support behind them to aspire to those higher levels. There is an enormous amount of untapped talent that needs to be developed."

Ms Jarrett is a product of the first-ever senior leadership programme for black middle managers that was held during 2000 and 2001. Of the 15 who took part, she has become the fourth to reach the rank of principal.

Stella Mbubaegbu was also on that course. The others were Maxine Room, principal of Swansea college in Wales, and Anthony Bravo, principal of the Crossways academy, a local-authority funded sixth-form college in Lewisham, south London.

Ms Jarrett said: "I came from a college in Hackney where at one point half the senior management team, four out of eight, were from black and ethnic-minority groups."

"It is only when you visit other colleges that you begin to appreciate the disparity between the make-up of senior management teams across the board.

"And it is most marked when you go to conferences as a senior manager. It was always noticeable that you could count the number of black and ethnic-minority people on one hand."

It is "a quirk of fate" that she ended up in Andover, she said. "I never saw myself working outside London and I had been content to wait for opportunities to come up there.

"I didn't even know where Andover was. But eight months later, I came here to be the deputy and in the space of three months I was appointed principal. It is just staggering."

Another reason why there are so few black principals, said Ms Jarrett, is that "maybe we tend to look in areas in our own comfort zone, where we have family and friends, and where there are large black and ethnic-minority groupings.

"It takes an enormous step of faith and strength to go where you don't know anyone and your support networks are many miles away. I don't think that those issues are as great for white senior managers."

She took the leap of faith after being headhunted by a recruitment agency for the Cricklade job. "I came and had a look and was pleasantly surprised.

I liked what I saw and thought I could do this.

"Because I had worked in a sixth-form college and also had FE experience, the agency thought a tertiary college would suit me."

Asked how Hampshire differs from Hackney, she replied: "The interesting thing I've learned is that aspirations are lower here than they are in inner-city London.

"Young people in Hackney see education as the only way out of the poverty trap. In Andover, jobs are plentiful but low-paid, so the challenges are different.

"Here, there is a self-perpetuating cycle of low income. Families need young people to get jobs, so that they can contribute to the household income."

And what was the reaction to her appointment? "I would like to say that people don't even notice what colour I am. When a television team came down to question students, their response was, why are you even asking us about that?

Ms Jarrett said: "They said all they were interested in was whether I was any good at my job. I thought that was wonderful."

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