United in struggle against racism

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Employers, unions, and funding council agree to set up a commission on race in FE. Harvey McGavin reports

Further education could be the catalyst to revolutionise race relations in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence affair, a conference on Black Teachers in FE heard this week.

The conference, at Lewisham College in south London - where Duwayne Brooks, who witnessed Stephen's murder, was a student - agreed to set up a commission on race in FE.

Headed by a high-profile public figure, the hope is that the commission would do for equal opportunities what Helena Kennedy's report did for the cause of attracting a broader spectrum of people into learning.

A group led by David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union NATFHE, and David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, will meet in the next few weeks to draw up a shortlist of names.

David Melville told the conference: "We exist within a society that has racism running through it and we have to ask the question - is FE any different? Can we be one of the catalysts that turns the tide of racism?" At present, 6 per cent of teaching staff in colleges are from ethnic-minority backgrounds - roughly equivalent to the population as a whole - compared to 12 per cent of students.

Just 2 per cent of college managers and only two principals - Wally Brown at the City of Liverpool Community College and Ahmed Choonara at South Nottingham - are black or Asian.

According to FEFC figures, ethnic-minority lecturers are generally younger, better qualified, and more likely to be employed part time or on short-term contracts than their white colleagues.

The projected increase in student numbers by 800,000 over the next three years, requiring 23,000 new staff, is a real opportunity to bring about better representation in the workforce, Mr Melville said.

Wally Brown said he had every confidence in the leadership of the AOC and FEFC to achieve a culture change in the sector: "They are genuine about making change."

Although equal opportunities policies were taken for granted these days, in practice black people were still discriminated against in the job market. Mr Brown suggested colleges should monitor more closely their recruitment procedures at every stage from enquiries through applications and shortlisting to appointments and promotion.

He said: "I still get people phoning me up and asking 'what about so and so college - is that all right for black people?'" "Colleges have to listen to what black staff have to say. All black staff have a lifetime of living with this situation and that's where you begin to get close to the truth of what the situation is."

Adjei Barwuah, of the Further Education Development Agency, said that if the sector was serious about racism then it needed to address the issue of access to the profession, why so many black student teachers dropped out?? and why there were so few ethnic-minority managers.

"Why does it become so difficult for institutions to invest confidence and to support and encourage and promote the staff they already have?" he asked.

Paul Mackney of NATFHE said that the casualisation had increased the already high proportion of black part-time staff and a "culture of exclusion" meant they were denied staff development opportunities and support.

As a regional official he had found that around half of all probationary lecturers whose performance was questioned were black and that the only explanation he could find for this was a kind of "unwitting" racism.

"I don't think this issue will ever be sorted out without positive action," he said.

Chairing the conference, Sir Herman Ouseley, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, concluded: "We mustn't feel this is somebody else's problem. Everybody must feel that there is something in it for them - if they don't, people will just switch off and the culture of the organisation will not be affected. Everybody in the college institution needs to feel they are part of the change."

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