Beyond samosas and steel drums

12th November 2004 at 00:00
The Commission for Black Staff in Further Education was established in 2000 to investigate the poor representation and position of black and Asian people working in the sector and make recommendations for action to change this situation.

The government- funded commission ceases to exist after this year, so this is an appropriate moment to review its work.

Colleges now have a legal duty, not just to stop discrimination but also to promote good practice. This applies to all colleges, including those in areas with small ethnic-minority communities.

I welcome the fact that recent inspection reports I have seen include rigorous assessment of how colleges promote and practise race equality.

Although positive action to promote equality has not been as widespread as the commission hoped, I have been very encouraged by the excellent work at three colleges in particular, Grimsby, South Birmingham and Hackney community. All have gone beyond mere compliance with the law.

The three colleges not only prepared, maintained and updated their race equality policies but also assessed how these affected admissions, support and achievement. In other words, they were not only collecting and "monitoring" data on ethnicity but using this actively to address the issues.

Other admirable features of the colleges included:

* Commitment to equality from principals, and a senior member of staff being made responsible for it;

* Commitment by staff and community representatives with numerous examples of people "going that extra mile";

* Celebration of diversity across the college with significant participation in the community;

* Innovative ways of working with individual learners and learners in the community;

* Very strong links with different communities. Community representatives gave examples of colleges' sterling work;

* Provision of prayer rooms;

* Strong statistics use as the base for action and planning;

* Diversity issues embedded in the curriculum;

* Participation in national initiatives such as the Black Leadership Initiative and mentoring; and

* Willing to learn further about best practice.

I was particularly impressed by the significant steps in promoting race equality at one of the colleges, which took place despite the fact that only 1.4 per cent of the total population are from minority ethnic groups.

Colleges need deliberate and positive strategies to "grow their own" black and Asian staff. At one of the three colleges many staff had previously been students at the college. All of them spoke with passion about the encouragement the college provided to them both as students and as staff.

In another urban college, the outstanding feature was that diversity and promoting equality was integrated into almost every activity - from the thematic multi-cultural nursery to deliberately employing multi-lingual staff in marketing and student support, as well as developing minority ethnic managers through its leadership centre.

In two colleges there was a wealth of positive images of black and Asian people in their promotion literature - well beyond the "sari, samosas and steel drums" imagery sometimes perceived by others as a commitment to equal opportunities. Two of the colleges had also established multi-faith forums to increase understanding and promote good race relations.

All this excellent work produced real results. Two of the colleges had ethnic-minority staff significantly represented in all positions, including senior posts. The ethnic mix of staff mirrored that of the local population.

I have focused on best practice to show what is possible. But far too many colleges have yet to embark on this journey or make rapid progress. They need to raise their game from their current approach which appears piecemeal and passive.

Ahmed Choonara is a member of the Commission for Black Staff and Executive Member of the Network for Black Managers

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