Editor's comment

15th October 2004 at 01:00
When the South African journalist Donald Woods escaped house arrest, he left behind many of the trappings of his white, middle-class existence as a newspaper editor.

But long before this point, he had also left behind some of his liberal attitudes to racial equality, having befriended the more radical Steve Biko, the black activist whose story he brought to the world while in exile in London.

After settling into their new home, the Woods family were able to bring over their housemaid Evalina, who they had come to regard as a close friend.

You will already have guessed the colour of her skin.

Before his death, Mr Woods fondly recalled the occasion when he walked into the room to find Evalina standing at the window in tears.

Outside, some men were at work. She explained that it was the first time she had seen white people doing manual labour.

Of course, apartheid is a thing of the past, its death having been made all the more certain by the moral courage of people like Mr Woods and his family.

But progress demands that we continue to be self-critical about the position of ethnic minorities.

The Learning and Skills Council's welcome creation of an equality and diversity committee presents a perfect opportunity for further education to do just this.

We have heard that black people are "under-represented" in colleges where ethnic minorities can account for as many as half of all students.

But there is little to gain from blaming colleges for the lack of black faces among their staff when so many of the causes of inequality are socio-economic and beyond the control of further education.

A more sophisticated approach is needed. The new committee should recommend research into the effect of black role models upon black pupils.

If the effect exists, it should be proved with evidence to show that black students, as well as Asian students, perform better when they can see people from similar backgrounds in positions of authority.

Then the argument for more black lecturers becomes performance-related and, therefore, irresistible.

If black students are to achieve to their maximum potential, what they need to see is not a white man doing manual labour but a black person teaching their class.

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