Ethnic majority must put its house in order;FE Focus

16th April 1999 at 01:00
THE revelation in the Macpherson report that institutionalised racism is endemic in UK public service may have surprised the ethnic majority, but it is a reality that black Britons have met in their daily lives.

The report's findings and recommendations in the wake of the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence will reverberate through Britain's public services for some time to come, hopefully to positive effect.

In the shadow of the private and public tragedy of the Lawrence family, it is important for the FE sector to examine its performance in addressing institutionalised racism.

We are a self-styled "second chance" for those failed by schools, and we are now charged with widening participation among the socially excluded and helping to establish a learning culture. The only possible chance of success in this enterprise will be if the key agencies of the sector engage in the self-criticism needed for effective remedial action.

On the credit side, the sector has universally adopted equality of opportunities statements and policies, and the burgeoning numbers of black students indicate the ethnic-minority population's understanding of the link between qualifications and employability.

On the debit side, black staff remain largely peripheral to the mainstream operation of the sector. Even in colleges in areas of high ethnic-minority populations, it is rare to find numbers of black teaching staff even vaguely reflecting student intakes.

When it comes to management tiers, corporation membership, and sector body boards, representation tails off to such an extent as to make the Metropolitan Police appear exemplary. Since appointment panels are predominantly white, it can hardly be surprising that they tend to appoint mirror reflections of themselves.

This is by no means the end of the story. There are FE sector parallels of the "canteen culture" referred to by Macpherson as a serious impediment both to the recruitment and retention of black staff. The difference is that, as a largely middle-class professional field, the "banter" can be more subtle, but no less destructive for that.

Instead of engaging in sterile finger-pointing, it is important for black professionals, through organisations such as the Network for Black Managers (NFBM), to offer positive ways to address the institutionalised racism in our colleges and organisations.

Starting with nomenclature; even now it is not unusual to hear references to "coloured" or "non-white" people, terms guaranteed to offend most black people. Try calling women "non-males". Even use of the term "black and Asian" is problematic, identifying, as it does, one group by geography and another by colour. If we are unable to get even basic terminology right, how can we expect to seriously address the underlying attitudes?

Beyond terminology we enter more difficult terrain. Most senior staff in FE institutions become defensive when the term "institutionalised racism" is used, as was graphically evidenced by the responses of the Met and the Police Federation to Macpherson.

The fact is that we must begin with the premise that it is the task of the majority to address the root causes of this phenomenon, since it was created by white-dominated institutions, not by black people.

The NFBM has received fulsome support from key agencies - the Further Education Funding Council, the Association of Colleges, the Further Education Development Agency and the Association of College Managers. All agree there is a serious issue to be addressed, and NATFHE has also demonstrated that it takes the matter seriously.

However, good intentions must be converted into action for real change. If the Government is to set targets for recruiting black staff, then we in this sector will be starting from a lower base than the Met, and have further to go to make real progress.

It is not a matter of "fast-tracking", training or mentoring. This was not necessary for the vast majority of white staff, so I would question why it is necessary for special measures to be adopted for appropriately qualified and experienced black people. We neither want nor need special treatment; we want the routine treatment which recognises that most of us were born andor educated here, and we are as well qualified as our white colleagues.

Black staff in the sector, through the NFBM (now 250-strong and growing), can assist the process, but it is for the ethnic majority to put the house in order. It will not be painless, but the trauma experienced by the Met will be avoided if the sector acts promptly. As in the Met, senior officers must make the necessary changes. The process will require effective leadership.

The author is director of Wolverhampton Lifelong Learning, and secretary of the Network for Black Managers

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