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Addressing racial inequalities in FE - Suki Dhesi

Suki Dhesi, vice principal at HSDC and member of the Black Leadership Group

Racial inequalities most definitely exist in our FE colleges. If you disagree, just ask your students. YMCA’s Young and Black report found that 95 per cent of young black people in the UK have heard or witnessed racist language at school. To address the root causes of racial inequality in our colleges, we must develop a zero-tolerance approach to racism, which leads to staff actively protecting students from discrimination, as required by the Equality Act 2010. To root out racism, and understand the actions required, I believe we need to understand racism, from the students’ perspective.

As FE leaders, managers and teachers, we know the importance of inclusivity to ensure all students feel valued. But to what extent do we provide an opportunity for our students to explain their lived experiences in relation to racism? To what extent do we urge our staff to prioritise actions to address the disadvantage that prevents these students from making the progress they deserve, to achieve their ambitions?

Through primary data collection within our own colleges, it is relatively straightforward to understand the experiences of FE students and then highlight these to all staff, to stress that the imperative is to act, and act now. Survey based research across FE students reveals the common experience of racial verbal microaggressions. Students are often asked “where are you from?”, “were you born here?”. Others experience behavioural microaggressions including avoidance on public transport or being followed by security. These subtle comments and behaviours, often unintended, cumulatively build up to damage self-esteem. This can lead to an inability to thrive within an academic environment. The internalisation of these feelings over time can cause race-based trauma, which can include feelings of anxiety and anger. This can lead to increased rates of student behaviour issues leading to exclusions which further traumatises the student.

To understand the impact of racism on students, in depth interviews reveal a more detailed lived experience. One student explained their feelings of bi-racial imposter syndrome, they shared how being bi-racial meant they could not relate to any one ethnic or social group at college, resulting in isolation and an internal conflict which consumes the mind and limits learning.

Another student explained the excessive academic pressure from family, which discourages any form of social interaction with peers. In my view, some parents feel justified to apply this pressure, as they themselves did not have the opportunities within the education system; as was the case for many first- and second-generation individuals residing in the UK, who may have struggled financially. This, I believe, can lead to feelings of immense guilt for the student if educational outcomes do not meet high parental standards. The root cause of low educational outcomes remains a key factor that requires further exploration, anecdotal data suggests to me that parental pressure to not choose pathways such as apprenticeships and T levels may lead students into academic routes they may not have chosen for themselves.

To me, the solution to addressing racial inequalities in FE is to share these lived experiences with all key stakeholders who are there to support students, so that students are supported, on an individual basis.

Here are some other steps I believe college staff should take:

Pastoral staff must engage in one-to-one conversation with students to discuss their wellbeing, encompassing a holistic approach that explores the students' social, emotional, and academic development, accepting that each student’s lived experience varies and that race based assumptions will most likely cause more harm than good. This approach enables students to feel supported, understood and accepted.

Staff responsible for personal development must ensure peer support for students experiencing any form of racial inequality, for example a group led by experts. Transmitting energy into solutions can minimise the internalisation of anger, resentment, or anxiety. In addition to a college group, Mind’s resources to support Black, Asian, and other ethnic group students are essential to embed within student support materials.

Teachers must ensure students learn about the people from their own race that have made a positive contribution to society. This can further be enhanced by ensuring that students can see individuals from their own race as role models within the institution, helping them “see it, to be it”. This can be easily achieved through visiting speakers or volunteers, in addition to employed staff.

Managers must use data to identify and close gaps relating to ethnicity, for example in relation to staff and student recruitment, performance and progression. Taking actions based on what the data tells us includes an acceptance that an institutional review of policies and procedures relating to both staff and students will be required to address racial inequality within the institution.

Externally, the college must provide support for parents and the wider community. Students often hear talk of trauma within the home, with stories of racism being passed down through generations. Parents stating that because of this racism “you need to work twice as hard” can cause second-hand trauma, leading young people to feel conflicted as they try to assimilate. This highlights the need to educate parents and their wider communities about the importance of building positive mental health in young people.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report attempts to explain disparities amongst different ethnic groups and suggests that further investment is required into research to understand what factors drive the success in certain communities including Black African, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Indian ethnic groups, to replicate this success for others. However, unless we adopt an individualised approach, we will not understand the lived experience of our students. The report highlights “if there is racial bias within schools or the teaching profession, it has limited effect and other factors such as family structure, cultural aspirations and geography may offset this disadvantage”. Racial inequalities most definitely exist in our FE colleges. If you disagree, just ask your students.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.