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10 things I learnt at AoC’s EDI conference

19 May 2023

A blog post by AoC Senior Policy Manager SEND David Holloway

Earlier this Spring I went to one of the most thought-provoking conferences I have ever been to in the FE sector – the AoC’s conference on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which now looks like becoming an annual event.

Appropriately enough, the sessions were very diverse; we heard the voices of students, academics carrying out original research, and college leaders, as well as voices from many organisations that work with colleges.

It is always wonderful to hear about innovative practice but when we want to reflect on what we do, we also need the right language. I was struck by how many of the sessions introduced ideas, expressions or distinctions that were new to me. Of course, other attendees may have been much more familiar with these topics, but I’d like to share the top ten things that made me think the most.


    Several speakers defined what they meant by equity but at the very end of the conference AoC’s Chair, Shaid Mahmood, set out the differences between equity, equality, diversity and inclusion in especially clear terms. He said: “There is now growing awareness and consciousness that EDI is made up of four constituent parts: Equality which is laid down by law in the Equality Act; Equity which is our ability within further education to make those adjustments that empower individuals to take ownership of their learning; Inclusion which again is in our gift to create that environment which supports all our learners and all our staff members to thrive and to make best use of their talents; and Diversity, which is the fact of life that we are all very different and have different talents and different needs”.

    Cognitive Justice

      Laura Kayes, one of AoC’s Research Further scholars, discussed her research on cognitive justice and poverty-informed practice. She talked about how “the normalisation of a carefully-considered, white, middle-class culture extends into our spaces of education.” Laura said there is a danger that we sometimes ‘other’ students from different backgrounds. At first, I didn’t see what she meant – till she talked about how a teacher talking about their own life to students can all too easily present their own experience as being somehow the norm. This is not just a powerful idea – it also points the way to a potential for positive change within our colleges. To learn more, you can read Laura’s blog here.


        Maltiti Musah-Razak from the Student Commission on Racial Justice explained this term through her own lived experience: “Racist abuse often relates to physical appearance, and the issue of colourism is worse for young people with darker skin. This is definitely something I've experienced. I used to have a friend who had fairer skin but was still black. They experienced little, very, very little racism in comparison to me, and in comparison to anyone else that had darker skin in my year group, especially being someone that was literally the only dark-skinned girl, and with a friend that had white skin - you could really, really, really tell the difference between the way I was treated in comparison to her. And I'm sure a lot of people can relate to that as well.” Responding to what Maltiti said, Sarah Hack from a group called Leaders Unlocked added “It's always so sobering when you hear these things that young people are experiencing because again, none of this should be happening! We should be able to be concentrating on our education and strengthening our skills rather than on how dark our complexion is!

        High Needs Provision Capital Allocations

          In a very practical session, Nolan Smith from Fusion and Cordelia Hill, an architect from 3BM studios, told the conference about High Needs Provision Capital Allocations. These funds are separate from High Needs funding and are allocated by DfE to local authorities for capital investment in SEND provision. £2.6 billion of this type of funding was announced in October 2021, to be allocated over three years. It is important funding because some students with SEND really benefit from facilities designed in particular ways – the DfE guidance gives the example of adapted kitchens for learning cooking skills. In the past, almost all SEND-specific capital has been invested in schools. This doesn’t make much sense as learners with SEND don’t stop deserving good facilities when they get older and go to college! Although there is no bidding system, Nolan revealed how some colleges have had success by approaching their local authorities directly. He also showed how to check how much funding your own local authority has here.

          Inclusive Recruitment

          In a fascinating interview, AoC’s own Jo Taylor interviewed Justine Pernice, from JP Mirage Consultancy, who gave many practical tips about how to be inclusive when recruiting staff. Justine talked about using inclusive job descriptions that aren’t discriminatory in language or requirements; working to attract candidates from under-represented backgrounds; stripping personal details from CVs during selection; providing diversity and inclusion training to recruiters (for example on conscious inclusion); creating an inclusive atmosphere at interview stage: and, of course, making any reasonable adjustments needed.

          Justine also talked about the many benefits that a diverse workforce brings, like having a range of perspectives, experiences, skill sets; increased creativity, innovation and problem solving; better decision-making by having a wealth of different perspectives; improved company culture; and higher employee morale, which is then likely to lead to better staff retention. What’s more, a diverse workforce can enable colleges to represent those we serve, to present positive role models for young people’s aspirations, and can also enhance an organisation's reputation and brand image.

          Positive Action

          Later in the same session, Justine made a distinction that, for me, was one of those moments when a crisp definition helps us think more clearly. She said that ‘positive action’ is misconstrued as ‘positive discrimination’ – it sounds like treating an individual more favourably because of a protected characteristic. But it isn’t the same: positive action refers to measures that an organisation can take to address the under-representation of certain groups by reducing or removing barriers to their success. It could mean things like using job boards targeted at a particular audience that your organisation has under-representation or putting in place a code of conduct for recruitment agencies, or it could mean looking internally at our own staff appraisals process and asking if we’re really developing the talent that’s already there in the organisation.

          Finally, Justine asked a brilliant ‘what if’ question: “What if you can increase the diversity of your workforce? What if you create a more inclusive environment? What damage have you done? None! There's nothing negative that's going to come from making those efforts!”

          Race Readiness

            Some of the same themes emerged in a panel discussion toward the end of the conference. Palvinder Singh, the principal of Kirklees College, talked to Charmain Bucho of City & Guilds, as well as the Further Education Commissioner, Sheila Legrave. Palvinder said that race can sometimes be uncomfortable to talk about. Charmain agreed and said that “racial equity in the workforce isn’t just the role of HR! It needs to be core to the whole-organisation strategy”. Charmain talked about ‘race readiness’, asking “are we ready to do race work?” and saying that we need to have those conversations with colleagues to develop their awareness, creating safe and supported opportunities to talk about race so they can be active in their work. Charmain also talked about how EDI is an issue for organisations’ supply chains – we need to ask who are we working with? And whose voices are feeding into what we do?

            Reverse Mentoring

            Rebecca Swallow, the Head of Student Services from Kirklees College, said her college is looking to introduce a reverse mentoring scheme where staff will learn from students about their lived experience and the challenges they have faced because they are from an underrepresented or minority group. Rebecca said “Staff will be buddied up with students to understand what it's like, for example, to have a disability or what it’s like to be Black as a student within the college. The scheme will not only be about people who are on the receiving end of racism, but also about understanding everyone's role in the college around allyship. The Reverse mentoring aims to equip the mentee with the knowledge they need to take practical steps to support EDI within the roles they hold in the college."

            Student Commission on Racial Justice

              This is an organisation I think we will be hearing much more from - and not just because of their excellent animation skills. According to their website the commission “is a national, student-led project giving young people across the country a platform to speak out about racial equality.” They have developed a set of recommendations about health, employment and policing, as well as education, which you can read in their report.

              At the conference, students talked about their experiences in college, both positive and negative. One student, Triniti, talked about how college staff can "learn from our day-to-day life to help change it because we're essentially the ones that live in the younger generations. I think that they can learn from our lived experiences rather than just hearing it from somewhere else, that they can hear it from our actual mouths. The teachers and lecturers need to be our microphone, but not our voice.


                Haroon Bashir, the Head of Equality and Diversity at Halesowen College, talked about bravery in a new and inspiring way. He said “If we keep doing the same things as we have done in the past nothing will change. We need to be brave, raise awareness, talk and challenge existing practices. However, we need to be realistic and understand it is about making progress, not perfection. We don’t have the answers and will make mistakes, but we need to learn from them, move on and continue to ask those questions which haven’t been asked before. This may cause one to feel uncomfortable at times, but this is also a sign of development.

                We can be brave and again it was Triniti, the student commissioner, who explained why it’s worth the risk. She said “I feel like it's sort of our responsibility to change the world, and for it not to be like what we're living in. It's never going to be perfect but if we can change it that little bit more, then the younger generations won't have the experiences that we've had.”

                And that to me was the biggest idea of all: not only can we make the change, but if we want a better world – then we must.

                David Holloway
                AoC Senior Policy Manager SEND
                David Holloway photo
                David Holloway photo