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FE has the ambition and aspiration to improve equality and diversity, but change is slow

07 September 2021

By Jeff Greenidge

As we move into the new term, I have been taking stock reflecting on EDI and the FE journey to date, and the conclusion is that although the sector has the ambition and aspiration to create a culture of inclusion in the UK, progress is slow. For some time at an intellectual level, senior leaders in further education have expressed their support for equality, diversity and inclusion. When questioned, leaders in further education say the right things; for example, they believe that the staff should reflect the diversity of their communities and that the workplace should be one in which everyone can thrive and feel that they belong. So why is progress slow? I suspect that there is no single answer, but here are a couple of observations.

Change is tough. It brings about uncertainty, volatility, ambiguity and unpredictability and is therefore seen by some as a threat. It can then engender undesirable emotions and behaviours and even contribute to overall disengagement or unproductive ways of being. This is evidenced in some of the highly charged emotional conversations that occur, particularly around concepts of white privilege and race. Real change will only occur when its need is deeply identified, and there is no way to stay in the current state. That is where we are today due to LGBTQ+, MeToo, Black lives Matter, the growing voice of the neurodiverse and many other activist interventions. We increasingly see this situation in the FE sector where pare practitioners and leaders decide that we cannot go back to a previous state, and they are beginning to change the game. Ian Pryce, Principal at Bedford college articulated the leadership challenge in his article in Tes. He outlined how he decided to take the lead on race equality at his college because he realised that was confusing inclusion and admission. How important is that visible leadership commitment in making change in inclusion and diversity?

The game changers sharing their stories this summer are not providing a blueprint. The blogs describe the complex challenges of creating a culture in which equity, diversity, and inclusion can thrive. This culture might need multiple creative solutions and a degree of emotional involvement from our leaders and the practitioners. In Arv Kaushal's blog, we see that EDI is no longer seen as an abstract concern and that senior leadership has made the visible commitment. The college is sharing its real world approaches, actions, successes, and failures and creating a space in which challenging conversations can take place and opinions can be expressed respectfully.

In the Ellisha Soanes' West Suffolk example, we see that creating a more inclusive environment for students is a challenge and not a problem. They have thought differently and involved the learners and community in the co-creation of the solution. Here the difference is celebrated, and the resultant black history curriculum is being used to empower all students. As Denise Brown, Principal of Stoke on Trent College, said in the ETF Intuition, A curriculum not dominated by supremacy could be a new awakening. It's not just BAME communities who suffer from a narrow perspective; white people are cheated too.

One of the failings of the equality initiatives has been the desire to bring everyone to the same point at the same time with the same resources. At Westminster Adult Education Service, Jaspal Dhaliwal shares in his blog how focusing on the story the data is telling can really be the starting point in understanding the challenges facing some learners and then providing the leg up; the equity required to reduce and close achievement gaps.

Anastasia Parsons shared with us how they are reimaging the systems that contribute to structural inequalities at Bedford college. This requires a mindset shift of those leaders who have created the specifications for these systems and processes and for those same leaders to dare develop a culture that prioritises inclusion. It isn't enough to train staff in what it means to be inclusive. Inclusion requires us to build new habits and behaviours that can be practised and actioned in a safe space that supports robust conversations and healthy tension. Genuine and meaningful progress towards greater equity and inclusion will only be by reimagining the system with diversity, equity and inclusion being the principles underpinning the new policies, procedures, and decision-making authorities.

I am grateful for colleagues who have shared their practice in this AoC blog series. These practitioners have taken the initiative, decided to change the game, and they are clear that these examples are not "best practice"; they are not a template or a blueprint. This short series shows that practitioners are taking pragmatic, timely action, sharing their stories, and inviting others to join them and build the knowledge base of what is possible in creating an environment where inclusion and equity make the most of the diversity we have.

Ian Pryce, Principal at Bedford college, asks us to imagine a world where what we are trying to discover has already been achieved, then look for such places and identify the differences from where you are now. We will hear more from colleagues at AoC's Annual Conference, and we will invite you to change the game in your organisations.

Jeff Greenidge is Director for Diversity and AoC and ETF