College leaders at a TES seminar said opportunities for ethnic minorities must be given more serious consideration. Ian Nash reports
Throughout weeks of unrest that culminated in the Oldham riots in May 2001 there were two safe havens in the city: the further education and sixth-form colleges.
Hundreds of youths clashed with police, 15 officers were injured and 29 people were arrested after weeks of racial tension between white and Asian youths that erupted into violence over two nights.
But the FE college in particular stayed calm, and its work continued as normal - no barricades, closed gates, curfews or police reinforcements.
Youths who would fight in the streets sat and discussed the issues rationally around canteen tables. The local media described the college as "a jewel in the crown of Oldham".
For Kath Thomas, who took over as principal shortly after the riots, the reason for such calm was that students respected "the sustained activity of learning". But how come, when so many disaffected youths associated formal learning with school failure and unemployment?
"You have to be uncompromising in protecting the environment and ensuring that it is sustained," says Kath, who continues to build on a strong multicultural tradition. "They have to know they are respected."
Community outreach programmes, a multi-faith chaplaincy and targeted financial support for socially excluded youths and adults are linked to carefully constructed multicultural education.
Schemes to encourage progression from FE to HE have boosted black and ethnic minority numbers. Around 30 per cent of graduates from the college's new business management school are of Asian origin, and a highly successful initiative is attracting minority students into teaching.
Much of the thinking behind such efforts comes from the 20th-century pioneers of multiculturalism. But people, including those actively involved in the work, now say they only got it half right.
The need for tolerance, understanding and respect for difference has never been greater. Yet many commentators suggest that this year's terrorism attacks in London, on July 7, and their aftermaths point to an urgent need to nurture common commitments and values across the UK's population.
As was seen in Oldham, colleges are in the front line of the struggle to resolve tensions in their communities. How colleges were seeking to achieve this was the theme of the TES seminar at the annual conference of the Association of Colleges in Birmingham.
A common concern was that the call for "understanding" was too often a one-way message.
Robin Landman, executive director of the Network for Black Managers, said:
"The assumption behind mass migration of the past 40 years was that it was temporary, for economic gain, before returning home. That assumption has to change. We ain't goin' home; we are home.
"Multiculturalism has so far meant hegemony, with Anglo-Saxon culture having pride of place and everything else subsidiary to it. That must no longer be so."
The Government's independent review of FE by Sir Andrew Foster points repeatedly to the need for colleges to reflect this diversity at every level - from support staff to the most senior management - across government and the representative organisations. There is also the government-backed Black Leadership Initiative to promote representation in all public sectors.
Colleges are rarely organised and run in a way that is relevant to the world of black and ethnic minority students, said Mr Landman. "What we are providing is an Anglo-Saxon model, created 20 or more years ago.
"Unless we change, we won't show them a model of the world as it is for them."
Without reform, alienation would continue its destructive course: "Why did a young man in Beeston find it easier to go down to London and blow himself up than to go to college and learn?" he asked.
For Ian Millard, principal of City of Wolverhampton college, the terrorist attack on London was a more defining moment than the 911 strike in New York. At that moment, one question should have been uppermost in the minds of every principal. He said: "What are we doing in my college to address this?"
Multicultural education is not the preserve of those colleges with significant minorities. In the complex world of irreversible mass migration, everyone needs this education, he told the seminar.
Wolverhampton college has won awards for its multicultural initiatives.
With 35 per cent ethnic minority student intake, Mr Millard takes a similar approach to that of Kath Thomas in Oldham - awareness education for everyone, not just the few.
But such work is costly, and therefore vulnerable.
"Some of these communities don't talk together in the city, but they do in the college. In classes, canteen and corridors, they come together sharing experiences," he said. "There is a real challenge to speak and share even more, but I fear that these opportunities will be less because of the lack of funds."
After 77, Bill Rammell, lifelong learning minister, moved rapidly to meet Muslim communities in their colleges to give reassurance and seek advice.
The community leaders were impressed.
However, Mr Millard asks a fundamental question: did ministers really understand where funding for "skills" should be targeted?
"This is another part of the debate to be had with the Learning and Skills Council. We heard from ministers about social policies. We should all challenge them on these wherever we see opportunities being taken away," he said.
On this, there was unanimous agreement at the seminar. The ability to conduct rational argument around racial tolerance and mutual understanding was as crucial a skill as basic literacy and numeracy. Prejudice and assumptions arising out of ignorance were equally, if not more, economically and socially excluding.
Colleges should seek help in tackling the roots of racial intolerance and ignorance wherever they can, said Ian Millard. City of Wolverhampton has a partnership with the United States Institute of Race and Culture, in Boston.
"The head of the college, Janet Helms, came over to talk about different approaches," he said.
"She asks fundamental and challenging questions about why we do what we do, what we want out of multiculturalism and why we are pushing the agenda.
"Once you say yes to the social values of justice, cohesion and diversity, you must still question what you are doing and expect your staff and students to challenge you openly every step of the way."
These were not rarefied romantic notions but carried a real business imperative, he said, adding: "I am in the business of recruiting from these communities, helping people to find work and find their place in society.
"If I do not make my college a comfortable place to meet, I will not be able to prepare my staff and students for the environments we expect them to work in. There is a powerful economic argument for the social agenda."
It is a hard road, he insists: "At every step, assumptions have to be tested and reviewed. We had concerns that we were too passive. We know that we had to take more affirmative action."
Whenever new race and multicultural policies are in place, at Wolverhampton, they are tested to destruction by impact analysis.
"What does it all mean? Where does it lead? What value is it to learners?"
The result, says Mr Millard, has been the creation of wide-ranging learning programmes around student rights, helping people to come to terms with their race and culture and not to see it as marginalising or alienating.
"It is about giving every minority a 'pride of place' once assumed only for those of Anglo-Saxon origin," he said.