Witnesses who hope to stamp out racism

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Racist attitudes in education can often affect career expectations. Martin Whittaker reports on an initiative to tackle it.

MIKE Peters talks about an ideal scenario for tackling racial discrimination in colleges.

"You have all the key players in further education in one big room, and then invite anybody who has anything to say on the matter to come in, and feel confident that what they say will be taken seriously," he says.

"That's how we'd crack it, because they'd change their practices. You've got to try and get them to change their hearts and their minds."

While this "truth and reconciliation committee-style" is not likely to happen, Peters believes the Commission for Black Staff in Further Education, which he chairs, is the next best thing.

The commission is currently hearing the experiences of black college staff first-hand. At the same time it is also pulling in "expert witnesses" - key people in FE and government ministers.

The list of those so far called include Stephen Grix, head of OFSTED's post-16 inspections, and David Sherlock, chief inspector of the new Adult Learning Inspectorate.

The commission also plans to meet John Harwood, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, to ensure that the battle against discrimination in FE goes forward with the new regime from next April.

"We have already had some interesting expert witness sessions where we've just looked at people very straight and said 'and what are you going to do about this as you lead your organisation?'," said Mike Peters.

The Commission for Black Staff in FE was set up in the wake of the report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, in a bid to challenge racism and break down barriers for black staff in colleges.

It is backed by the Further Education Funding Council, the Association of Colleges, the lecturers' union NATFHE and the Network for Black Managers, and funded by the Department for Education and Employment.

According to the commission's survey of 150 colleges, around 5 per cent of support staff in further education are black.

The survey found that in many colleges, students are unlikely to see a black lecturer. Fewer than 4,000 out of a teaching force of 130,000 - around 3 per cent - are black.

And in more than 400 colleges there are only two black principals and very few black senior managers.

"If you are black and seeking a career in further education, it is hard to get in and very hard to get on," the survey report concludes.

The commission is trying to address these issues. Last week saw the first of its witness days, held at Matthew Boulton College in the heart of Birmingham.

A panel heard evidence from a range of ethnic-minority staff from throughout the Midlands, including senior lecturers, heads of department, security staff and clerical workers.

Three more such days will be held in colleges in London, Bournemouth and Oldham (see final paragraph for details). The commission is expected to report next autumn.

But chair Mike Peters is determined that the report won't simply lie gathering dust. He is confident that given the structure of the inquiry, and its involvement of the major FE organisations, that the findings will be adopted.

"I don't pretend it's going to be easy because the whole set of issues is quite complex," he said.

"The outcomes will need to be assessed a year down the line.Having made the report and taken it to all the organisations, we'll then need to come back and evaluate it."

Mike Peters is executive director of education in the London borough of Lambeth. He believes the witness-day approach opens up a conduit hitherto denied to ethnic minority staff to talk about their experiences in FE.

Speaking to The TES between witness sessions, he said: "In Birmingham we are hearing about people who face a lack of promotion opportunities and are hitting glass ceilings, even when they have the skills to do the job.

"We get a direct opportunity to listen to what it's like. Because if you don't get that, you can't then come up with practical recommendations that should make a difference to these people's lives.

"One thing we wouldn't want to do is to come up with a series of sterile recommendations that then sit on someone's shelf."

Cases heard by the commission so far range from direct discrimination to much more subtle "ghetto-ising" of black college staff, said Peters.

"There are people who are highly qualified and who have very strong skills. Part of their job is to go into communities and pull in black students.

"Most of them perform that very well. But then they are perceived as operating just in that area - as if that is all they do - and so they often miss out on senior appointments."

He believes that while a number of colleges adopt good practice against discrimination, they are in a minority. The majority do not understand the principles of equal opportunities and do not recognise that there is even a problem.

"Institutionalised racism definitely exists, and it's present in further education as well. This sector must be determined to change that."

Following a review of the witness sessions at Matthew Boulton College, David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, was bullish about the Commission's work.

"It's about getting the structures right. And I think there were lots of ideas and recommendations there for the future of good practice."

The commission is to hold further

witness sessions on November 15 at Woolwich College, London, on

December 13. at Bournemouth and Poole College, Bournemouth, and on January 31 at The Oldham College, Oldham

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