‘The glass ceiling that exists for black staff must be smashed’

27th July 2018 at 00:00
Last year, Theresa May warned that public sector leaders presiding over racial equality in their organisations had nowhere to hide, but despite this, funding cuts have stalled progress in rebalancing the FE workforce, finds George Ryan

In one of her first speeches as prime minister, Theresa May pledged to tackle the “burning injustice” of inequality and ordered her government to address racial disparities in the public sector workforce.

The ensuing government-commissioned Race Disparity Audit, when it reported back last year, shone a light on the different outcomes people unfairly receive from services, based on their race.

In response, the prime minister warned those in the public sector that there would not be “anywhere to hide” where inequalities were found, adding: “If the disparities can’t be explained, they must be changed.”

The audit did not explore leadership in education, but new data shared with Tes shows a big discrepancy between the number of black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) leaders in FE and the communities that colleges serve.

Figures calculated by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) reveal that just 6.8 per cent of senior and middle managers in FE colleges hail from a BAME background, while the figure for principals and chief executives stands at 9.8 per cent (see graphic, right). This does not reflect the country’s demographics: at the 2011 census, the BAME population stood at 13 per cent.

Patrice Miller, a specialist English teacher at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, says: “It’s important, for aspirational reasons, that young people see leaders that look like or come from a similar background to them. Too often in FE, leaders are white, middle class and don’t understand the issues that young people from minority ethnic groups face. So the operational and strategic decisions they make fail to benefit the communities they serve.”

The lack of senior BAME staff

Andy Forbes, principal at the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London, agrees that, for a sector with such a diverse mix of students, serious questions must be asked about why it has so few senior BAME staff. “Despite the prime minister’s words about racial disparity, no one in government has said anything about the FE sector,” he adds.

Dame Asha Khemka, principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College, says it is time for the government to “stop paying lip service” to issues of racial inequality. “We need to create role models,” she says. “I think it’s very important – at all levels – for staff to reflect the populations they work in and the world we live in. It is our job to support, coach and mentor BAME staff in FE, to get them ready for these top positions.”

Meanwhile, Dawn Ward, chief executive and principal of Burton and South Derbyshire College, is concerned for the future of the sector if the situation is not turned around. “We need to inspire people to join our dynamic sector and embrace diversity if we are to sustain an FE workforce in decades to come,” she says. “You only need to look at our country’s predicted population make-up in 2050 to see the challenges we will have.”

Researchers from race-equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust predict that the UK will become much more diverse by the middle of the century, with the BAME population set to reach about 30 per cent by 2051.

The withdrawal of government funding from organisations such as the Network for Black and Asian Professionals in 2015 a body that championed and mentored future BAME leaders in the FE sector, has exacerbated the situation, according to Ward. She says the organisation “helped and challenged existing college principals, like me, to understand perceived barriers and our unconscious bias”.

NUS students’ union president Shakira Martin, who would one day like to become a college principal, says college leaders should ensure that staff are representative of their communities, to “give the future generation of students the role models that are so important at such a vital time in their lives”.

But she adds: “While progress has been made, we know that barriers to promotion are still a key issue for black staff, resulting in slower progression to senior roles than their white counterparts. The current glass ceiling that exists for black staff must be smashed, and support for black staff – along with training for senior staff – is crucial.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, states that colleges “benefit greatly from diversity” at all levels, but that efforts to address the disparity have stalled due to a lack of funding.

“As we’ve seen with gender pay gap reporting, the public sharing of data like this can be a helpful stimulus for action,” he says.

“There was a lot more of a focus and work carried out on this in the 2000s, but the data shows that the lack of investment in recent years has had a negative impact. We really need to take stock of that, as a sector, and agree concrete actions to address the obstacles and challenges.”

Jenny Jarvis, chief operating officer at the ETF, says that, as the organisation responsible for professional development in the sector, the foundation actively promotes equality, diversity and inclusion.

She adds: “A key strand of our work is increasing and encouraging diversity in the FE and training sector, and those who are taking up our professional learning and development.”

But Miller feels that more work is required across the whole FE sector to address the issue: “It needs to actively attract minorities at all stages of recruitment. If leaders in the sector really wanted to be progressive and improve outcomes for learners, they’d make a start with their fellow decision-makers.

“I want to see the FE sector promote that it actively welcomes applications from ethnic minorities on job adverts. I would also like colleges to include minorities at interview stage with the interview panel consisting of at least one minority. Until the FE sector makes these progressive changes to recruitment, it is inadvertently continuing to promote leadership that doesn’t welcome BAME candidates.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Diversity and equality of leaders is extremely important – and we would like to see the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff increase.

“That is why we have invested £160,000 in a range of programmes that are designed to strengthen leadership in FE colleges, including developing a leadership pipeline for BAME staff.”

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