Colleges are lagging behind in their duty to establish positive policies for ethnic communities, reports James Sturcke
MOBS embroiled in running street battles with police in northern towns filled television screens in what became known as the summer race riots of 2001.
The findings of the post-mortem that followed made depressing reading as a picture of a divided society racked by prejudice, injustice and poverty emerged.
But it also became clear that local FE colleges were seen by communities as neutral ground - places where people from different racial backgrounds could get together in relative harmony.
The Government told colleges they had a crucial role to play in stamping out racism. That was backed up when the Race Relations Amendment Act came into force last year, giving colleges, along with 43,000 public bodies, a legal duty to promote equality.
Earlier this month, the Commission for Racial Equality held a conference in London amid fears that many colleges have yet to get to grips with their new duties.
Diversity and equality consultants Schneider-Ross revealed in July that only one of the 22 college race-equality policies it had assessed was fully developed.
Stephen Twigg, under secretary of state at the Department for Education and Skills, told delegates: "We have a long way to go to get where we want to be. All of us have a responsibility to make sure nobody is denied the opportunity to progress because of their ethnic origin.
"One year after the Act came into force, many FE institutions still do not have an effective race equality policy in place and that is an unacceptable situation."
CRE chief executive Daniel Silverstone told delegates that black and minority ethnic (BME) students were less likely to be satisfied with the quality of teaching while BME staff were more likely to feel undervalued.
He said: "Learning and Skills Councils must now take account of the needs of local minority learners and employers. Targets for rates of admission and retention, levels of achievement, student and staff satisfaction should be set and met.
"Curricula should take account of race equality. Teachers should be equipped with the skills to teach a diverse community of learners. They should be able to recognise racism and promote equality. And leadership programmes should target BME staff. Minority staff and students should be in an environment where they are valued, encouraged and supported."
In England about 14 per cent of FE students are black or from ethnic minorities, but for staff the figure is less than 5 per cent.
Robin Landman, formerly deputy principal at Hackney community college and now secretary of the Network of Black Managers, told a seminar that it made business sense for colleges to enrol students from the growing ethnic minority populations but stressed more BME staff and governors were needed.
Mr Landman, whose parents are South African, said: "When I applied for jobs and saw one of the interviewing panel was black, I knew I had a chance.
"The fact that of the 480 college principals in England only five are black is pathetic. Where are black students going to get their role models and positive images from?"
As a starting point, colleges should aim to reflect the make-up of the local population in college staff and student numbers, he added.
Bob Hindle, equal opportunities manager at Bolton sixth-form college, was among the delegates. "We are near to where there was trouble in Bradford," he said. "We are taking students who come from pretty much segregated schools, and for many it is the first time they have been brought together with people from different racial backgrounds.
"All new students now study race issues. Through the tutorial process, students produced the booklet Celebrating Diversity explaining different religions, cultures, arranged marriages and so on. It is there to break down barriers.
"We have a CD-Rom that goes out to schools with our promotional literature, which makes it very clear we welcome everyone. The booklet has won us a nomination for a Beacon Award for promoting racial equality and now goes out to all job candidates."
He added that the college had had help from BBC newsreader George Alagiah and was working with the Network of Black Managers to boost the leadership skills of its middle-ranking BME staff.
Carol Gibson, one of only two principals at the conference, said her college - Waltham Forest in north-east London - had organised a residential course for ethnic minority groups to identify where the curriculum could be improved, resulting in a link-up with supplementary schools and training accredited by the Open College Network.
She said: "From next month, staff will have access to an intranet training package which looks at best practice when teaching ethnic minorities.
During the winter all staff will take part in a course with an external trainer. We want to be sure there is a baseline which everyone adheres to."
Delegates were left in no doubt that the newly empowered watchdogs were prepared to bite.
Seamus Taylor, the Commission for Racial Equality's director of strategy and delivery, said: "The commission is going to use promotion, persuasion and partnership wherever possible. We are also the enforcement agency and will use the law where we find cases of wilful neglect.
"It is not necessarily poor performance. When we intervene we will do it to drive up standards. We have been given a bold vision but the risk is that it will sit in college filing cabinets.
"I would say to colleges, regardless of paper policies, focus on outcomes.
Look at attainment and retainment levels, set targets, do staff surveys, find out if satisfaction is related to ethnicity. Good employers should monitor employee experience from the first interview. Who stays? Who goes? Why?
"Colleges should revisit their race equality policy. It is not written in stone. Ditch it if it is crap."