Hurdles to promotion are letting minority ethnic talents fall away

8th May 2009 at 01:00
There are more black and ethnic principals than ever, who are mentoring scores of managers from similar backgrounds ready for their next career step. So why is there so much concern over the future for black staff in further education? Alan Thomson reports

If people were asked to name the city with the greatest number of colleges with black principals, which would they say? London? Birmingham? Manchester? Bradford? In fact, none of these cities has even one black principal of a general further education college.

"It beggars belief," says Robin Landman, chief executive of the Network for Black Professionals (NBP). "It's outrageous. Fifty per cent of the UK's black and minority ethnic population lives in London and there's not a single black principal of a general FE college."

London does boast Satnam Gill, principal of the venerable Working Men's College, but he is one of only 11 black principals in the whole of England, all pictured here.

The figures speak for themselves. The proportion of the UK population who are of a black and minority ethnic background is 8 per cent.

In 2005-06, 7 per cent of college staff were from black and ethnic backgrounds (although the number of people whose background was "not known" may mean that the actual proportion is higher). Some 6.5 per cent of FE teachers, 7.6 per cent of support staff, 5.8 per cent of managers and just under 3 per cent of principals were black or ethnic. These figures compare with 20 per cent of learners in FE from a similar background.

It is important to remember that black and ethnic representation among FE staff is good compared to schools. According to Mr Landman, 5 per cent of school teachers, 3 per cent of secondary heads and just 1 per cent of primary heads are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, compared with 20 per cent of all pupils.

While 11 black and ethnic college principals does not sound much, and is only 3 per cent of the total, it is more than there has ever been and meets the target set by the Learning and Skills Council in 2002 for this year. Each one is mentoring several senior staff from minority backgrounds, supporting and encouraging them as they prepare for principalship.

So, relatively speaking, things have never seemed so good for black and ethnic staff in further education. In truth, the situation is far less promising.

There are two distinct issues. The first is that fewer people from minority backgrounds are taking jobs in further education, so fewer are rising to management and senior management positions.

Rajinder Mann, director of the network's Black Leadership Initiative, which runs mentoring and support schemes for black and ethnic managers, said: "I think the recession and organisational restructuring within the sector means that black staff are among the first to face the chop.

"Many are in roles which are fractional posts or are in community-facing roles and these are among the first that get squeezed."

Ahmed Choonara, chair of the Network for Black Professionals, said: "Part of the problem originates in the labour market and the aspirations of black people. When I was aspiring to be a manager I was willing to look elsewhere for a job. Nowadays, people are not willing to move unless there are significant salary incentives. And because every college has a critical mass of white staff, they are better able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise."

Sujinder Sangha, principal of Stockton Riverside College in Stockton-on- Tees, who has done research into black and ethnic managers in FE, notes a change in attitudes among aspiring black staff and managers.

"The first managers who came through FE have been resilient," he said. "They refused to be victims of racial discrimination and turned that into a strength and developed their own networks and, in the process, they learned that this can make a wider contribution to education development.

"Second and third generations need their hand held and much more encouragement. I have found that they do not like to compete for jobs for fear of upsetting people around them."

For Stella Mbubaegbu, principal of Highbury College in Portsmouth, the problem is not a lack of aspiration in the younger generation, but rather the opposite.

"You find that if there are younger people coming into education then, because of the pay differential, they prefer to work in the schools sector," she said.

"If you have gone through university and want to get a good job, then FE is perhaps not your first choice."

The second issue concerns promotion at the top of the career ladder. There appears to be a glass ceiling separating the large numbers of managers and senior managers in the sector - more than 800 at last count - from deputy principal and principal levels, leading to a drain of talent.

"I know many who have applied and not been appointed," said Mrs Mbubaegbu, who is chair of the Black Leadership Initiative. "Sadly, what we are seeing over the years is that some of these people give up and leave the sector.

"The role of college governors is crucial since they are responsible for the appointment of principals.

"That's where the attention needs to be: the make up of governing bodies in terms of how diverse they are and their willingness to appoint the best person for the job," said Mrs Mbubaegbu.

A look at where the 11 black and ethnic principals are based shows that most are in colleges in areas with relatively small black and ethnic populations. By contrast, there are almost no black principals running colleges in the large conurbations, such as Greater London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds.

"The thing that stands out for me about black principals is that they are appointed where you would not expect them to be," said Mrs Mbubaegbu.

"If you look at the governing bodies in these colleges, they are determined to appoint the best person for the job. This is not the case with all governing bodies.

"The same sorts of prejudices that exist in society generally exist in governing bodies.

"People do tend to appoint in their own image or the expectation of what the image for the college should be."

If that is true, why are there not more black principals in cities where governing bodies are more likely to have black members?

"If you are a black governor, you are under scrutiny for appointing people like yourself in a way that no white governor would be," said Mr Landman. "I also think there is an historical legacy of big city politics that influences the governing bodies of colleges in cities that you do not see to the same extent in other areas."

Mr Sangha agreed: "I find anecdotally that governors from colleges like mine tend to be from legal and professional backgrounds, but the backgrounds of governors from big cities tend to be more political and activist. Therefore, their decisions may be more political."

David Collins, principal of South Cheshire College and president of the Association of Colleges, also believes that the composition of governor bodies is an issue. "In general terms, governing bodies are not that representative of their communities, having been drawn from the great and the good," he said.

"What we need is research on this."

It appears that it is not only the upper echelons of college life that prove challenging for black and ethnic staff eager to progress their careers. Middle management can also present a hurdle.

"I found it difficult to get promoted at first," said Janak Patel, principal of Royal Forest of Dean College in Gloucestershire, who mentors a number of black and ethnic managers at other colleges through the Black Leadership Initiative.

"It was about knowing the rules of the game and ensuring that people knew what a good job you were doing.

"That's what I still hear," he said.

"Also, to climb the ladder you need training, and for many black staff it was harder to get because it was somehow more difficult to get cover while you did it.

"This still comes up as an issue," he said.

Ms Mann said: "Middle management is a sticking point. There is a lack of understanding there. We are still operating in an environment where it will take years to eliminate institutional racism.

"For you to go on a training programme you would have to have your classes covered. Black Leadership Initiative programmes have to have the written support of principals and line managers and we do get calls from people saying they cannot get time off or they are not supported by their line manager."

The support offered by the leadership initiative is proving invaluable to black and ethnic managers, with 138 being guided to date and about 500 principals, chief executives and chairs of governors registered as mentors. Ms Mann said nine out of the 11 black and ethnic principals have benefited from the scheme.

Mr Landman described the programme as a "jewel" set up by the Commission for Black Staff in Further Education seven years ago with an annual budget of Pounds 600,000. Since then, some of the sparkle has been lost with the halving of that budget. He is concerned that this will limit the programme's future effectiveness.

"I understand that we cannot all afford silk purses at this time but when you have something that works it ought to be supported and nurtured," he said.

While further education can be proud of the achievements of black and ethnic staff to date, the sector may struggle in future to sustain a pool of talent of sufficient size to maintain, let alone increase, the number of black and ethnic managers in the sector.

As institutions that exist to serve the needs of their communities in all their diversity, FE colleges are aware of the need to maintain diversity within their staff. The question for people such as Mr Landman, Mrs Mbubaegbu and others is what will institutions do about it and when?

Comment, page 6

Edge Hill University will be running taster courses this month and over the summer for black and minority ethnic people interested in teaching in the lifelong learning sector. Contact

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