Despite a mixed population, colleges have few ethnic staff in senior positions. So is FE institutionally racist? Neil Merrick investigates
When Ranjna Parmar was appointed personnel manager at East Birmingham College nearly four years ago, other people muttered that she was given the job only because she is black.
Although the complaints came from a minority of staff, they still hurt. Ms Parmar, a staff development officer, gained her promotion after studying for a part-time degree in business studies and gaining the Institute of Personnel and Development qualification for human resource professionals.
"They claimed that I was promoted because there were no black people in management," she says. "They said it was a token gesture rather than the result of hard work and effort."
In September 1998, following the creation of City College from the merger between East Birmingham and Handsworth colleges, she was promoted to director of personnel. City College has about 720 staff, more than 200 of them black. Unusually, one-third of the senior managers are black or from other ethnic minorities.
Ms Parmar, who has no teaching experience, took what is probably a unique route into her senior management role. She joined East Birmingham College in 1989 as secretary to the vice-principal, Mary Green, and was promoted to team leader and then staff development officer. "People saw the potential in me and helped me towards qualifications," she says.
City College actively encourages people from ethnic minorities to apply for all positions, including senior management posts. Job specifications are kept flexible. "We don't state that people must have four GCSEs, in case that excludes people whodidn't finish school," she adds.
A high-level commission on black staff in FE was launched at the Association of Colleges conference last November. Chaired by Michael Peters, chief education officer for York, it has the support of the Further Education Funding Council and the lecturers' union Natfhe. One of its first tasks will be to discover exactly how many teaching and non-teaching management posts are held by black people. While it is acknowledged that people such as Ms Parmar are in a small minority, nobody is exactly sure how small it is.
There are just two black principals running colleges in England - Ahmed Choonara at South Nottingham and Wally Brown at City of Liverpool - and there is a small number of black vice or assistant principals, mainly in cities with large ethnic minority populations.
Naz Mistry became assistant principal for quality and the curriculum at Gateway Sixth Form College in Leicester just over two years ago. He waspreviously head of psychology.
The key to successful promotions at Gateway is the mentoring and support managers receive before and after they take up new posts. Whenever senior managers attend an important meeting, they take a more junior manager for the experience.
Given that relatively few black FE staff are promoted to senior posts, it is very important that none are seen to fail - both in the eyes of their peers and black colleagues who may be pushing for similar promotions.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, believes that, while all new managers require induction, black staff sometimes need special attention. "I don't think senior managers within colleges take sufficient account of the difficulties resulting from black managers giving out instructions to white lecturers in places where there have not been black managers before," he says.
Natfhe is strongly in favour of target-setting so that colleges would need to ensure management posts are filled according to the ethnic breakdown of the population. Equality targets should also be set and checked by FEFC inspectors, says Mr Mackney.
Despite plans for recruitment targets within police forces, the Government has ruled out a similar strategy for education. It will not even require colleges to monitor the number of black staff in different positions.
Black staff risk becoming "ghettoised" in equal opportunity roles. Last September, Andy Forbes was appointed director for widening participation at Oldham College, where he is one of six senior managers. He joined Oldham from City College in Manchester, where he had been a senior lecturer for equal opportunities training then moved to marketing manager. He became frustrated whenever he applied for more senior roles because he was told he did not have enough experience of managing people.
It was only when a team of community development workers was attached to his equal opportunities post that Mr Forbes achieved a breakthrough. Many black staff, he says, resort to "playing the race card" and go for community relations roles, if only to gain a foothold within the management system. "The trouble then is that you become trapped."
Gary Chin, assistant principal for corporate services at Woolwich College, south-east London, is the only black member of a management team of four. He sits on interview panels for junior and middle-management posts in finance and other non-teaching departments and notices how there are not enough black candidates applying for these jobs.
"Whether it is the result of the way FE or the public sector is perceived I don't know," he says. "What I'd really like to know is how many black people have ever applied to become principals?"