London's further education diversity gap

By Andy Forbes on

I’m relatively new to working in London, having only started in April 2015. I didn’t have much time to settle in before the Government announced its area review programme just a couple of months later. By November I found myself attending an event at City Hall to launch the London area review, where chairs of governors and principals of all 53 London colleges were gathered.

Here I was in the UK’s most ethnically diverse city – I had already learned that an estimated 40% of Londoners and 44% of London college students are from black and minority ethnic (BME) background – being addressed by Munira Mirza, at that time the Deputy Mayor for Culture and Education. Exciting! Part of the buzz of being in a city with a serious claim to being a world-leading business centre.

But wait. Imagine my astonishment at looking around the room at the audience of over a hundred leading lights in London’s further education (FE) sector and seeing a sea of white faces. By my count, less than five of us were visibly of BME background, a figure which wouldn’t have surprised me in the East of England where I had previously worked, but which certainly did in London.

I’ve since tried to do some research – surprisingly difficult since no-one seems to keep up-to-date information on the composition of London’s FE workforce. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the latest national figures – which go back to academic year 2012/13 – indicate that less than 9% of FE senior managers in English colleges are BME. There are no figures available for London colleges. From a quick headcount of my fellow principals, I calculate that the grand total is...wait for it...five, of whom only three are permanent, long-term appointments, so arguably the true figure is three. I make that under 6%.

I haven't got around to carrying out a survey of those in the next tier down, but based on my attendance at events and conferences I'd be very surprised if there were more than a dozen BME senior executives in the whole of London’s FE sector. This, to put it mildly, is weird.

Even weirder is the fact that no one is talking about it! No discussion, no debate, silence.  In a city which has just elected a mayor of Pakistani origin, this is bizarre, to say the least.

Is this a case of the emperor with no clothes? Is it just too shocking to mention? Or has the debate about BME under-representation now been consigned to history, like arguments over whether VHS is better than Betamax? Before the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was dismantled and its Minister Sajid Javid reshuffled, he had just launched a new enquiry into the barriers BME people face in the labour market, including "why people from BME backgrounds find it more difficult to reach the top". Perhaps the leader of the review, Baroness McGregor-Smith, should start with the London FE sector as a case study.

I'm reaching the end of my career so I have no personal axe to grind. But I feel it would be a great shame and an extraordinary irony if I was to leave the FE sector in the same way I came in 30 years ago - one of a small number of BME professionals in a sea of institutional indifference. Most importantly, it's hard to believe that our sector can serve a global city such as London without leadership that better reflects the wonderful diversity of its people.

Andy Forbes is the Principal and Chief Executive of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London