Why does the public face of FE have to be white?

19th May 2017 at 00:00
The proportion of minority-ethnic learners is not mirrored in the FE workforce and the lack of BAME staff taking the stage at events doesn’t help, argues Patrice Miller

I recently attended the annual Tes FE Awards. I, like many other attendees, looked at the winners on stage, as they took their picture to celebrate and capture well-deserved accomplishments, achievements and aspirations. It was an incredible moment, worthy of photographing.

But in the midst of all the glitz, glamour and glory, I could not help but feel slightly isolated. I looked across the length of the stage and realised that not one of the beaming faces looked like me. Not a single person posing picture-perfect reflected my ethnic identity.

I don’t think this was premeditated, but I still found it disconcerting, as inclusivity in FE is a huge deal. The sector serves a vast array of people with different experiences, backgrounds and origins, be it staff or students. The lack of multiculturalism representing the various FE providers nationally made me question the progress that I thought FE had made in regards to widening the participation of black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) staff.

The Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF) 2015 workforce data highlights where the sector stands on ethnic diversity. Nationally, only 4 per cent of staff are of Asian descent and 3.5 per cent are of African/Caribbean origin. These figures are slightly lower for senior managers, with 2.5 per cent of those in leadership positions originating from a minority background. Further statistics from the workforce data show that 8.2 per cent of FE learners are of Asian origin and 6.4 per cent are African/Caribbean.

Sadly these statistics show discrepancies between the make-up of the FE workforce and the ethnic profile of learners.

Why should this be an area of interest to us? Well, many problems still exist around the concerns of equality and diversity for ethnic minorities. The main issue in our sector is not the equality side of inclusion. Many would agree that the general ethos of treating people equally, regardless of origin, is respected and any disregard of that is recognised as being unacceptable and intolerable antisocial behaviour. The Equality Act 2010 paved the way for this to be possible. But it is the lack of diversity that is still of major concern – it is dissimilar to treating people equally.

As a black British woman enjoying a rewarding and satisfying career in the FE sector, I have experienced occasions where opportunities have appeared inaccessible through the lack of diversity. I can recall numerous occasions where I have attended a job interview only to find the panel in no way reflected my ethnic persuasion. This led to feelings of isolation and exclusion.

Equal but not diverse

I can also bring to mind the various times I have attended FE teaching, learning and good-practice conferences at which none of the keynote speakers came from a non-white British background. The events told me that there are still many hurdles to climb and conversations worth having to ensure minorities can participate.

Both of these experiences inadvertently gave out the message that, in the midst of extensive planning and preparation, there is an absence of forethought on the importance of multiculturalism and making such roles accessible to ambitious potential participants.

It has not all been doom and gloom. I remember sitting in front of the interview panel for my current role and feeling dignified that there had been some planning to ensure that someone with a similar background was represented on the panel. Of the many interviews that I had attended in FE, this experience was a rarity.

The FE sector has yet to ensure that its staff are represented proportionately at all levels. The sector employs many ambitious staff from the most marginalised ethnic communities; many have ambitions to become senior managers, transformational leaders of innovation, public speakers and educational researchers. This needs to be evidenced proportionately through people who currently lead the sector.

I would like to see FE providers and organisations do more to engage people from typically disadvantaged ethnicities. There are a whole host of ways and attitudes that need to change for things to be drastically improved.

Overcoming systemic bias

Firstly, the sector should remove the unconscious white-British bias and become more comfortable working with people who do not mirror the majority ethnicity. Organisations and professional bodies can lead on this by making a conscious effort to ensure their columns, blogs, training events, conferences, public image and celebratory activities are well represented with the experience and contributions that reflect the identities in modern Britain. FE providers could do well to ensure that they make use of the full array of cultures within their organisation to represent them during external events and visits or internal events such as employment interviews.

I also think organisations and professional bodies need to continue to provide a platform for issues around inclusivity and diversity to be securely raised, listened to and addressed. Only then will ethnicity gaps be filled and unintentional systematic disadvantages be acknowledged and replaced. The sector could then, in turn, thrive by benefiting from inclusivity, collectiveness and diversity.

Patrice Miller is a specialist English teacher at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College. She tweets @patricemiller_

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