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How senior leadership teams can become culturally competent - Arv Kaushal

01 September 2022

Transforming the upper echelons of any institution is a slow and complex process, so until management of our colleges is as diverse as the staff across all levels, we have to find other ways to make sure that those in leadership roles are as well attuned to the needs of those to whom they answer.

At Milton Keynes College Group, we recently released our first ethnicity pay gap data. This illustrated anomalies you may have expected in terms of what people earn in relation to their backgrounds, but actually, the pay element is the least important bit of what we looked at. Pay is a starting point and a fairly blunt metric when it comes to examining your EDI. It tells you where you’ve ended up, but not how to get to somewhere better. And it’s the moving somewhere better we all want to achieve.

With the best will in the world, our senior leadership teams are not about to be transformed overnight into perfect representative models of our communities. If we accept that, we can then turn our attention to how we make the existing hierarchy more responsive to the needs of different people. This is where cultural competence comes in. Broadly, it means equipping those with the power to make change with knowledge of the communities they serve, to understand how they can best be trained and encouraged, how staff can be developed and promoted and learners supported to achieve better educational outcomes.

If your college has a problem with its maths results, you might well consider bringing in a specialist maths consultant to look at your teaching and learning and see how to make things better. Few college leaders would baulk at such an investment, because it makes the business more efficient. At Milton Keynes College Group, we’ve taken this same approach to EDI and signed up to some excellent courses from the Institute for Educational and Social Equity to help people across the organisation to get better at understanding people from different backgrounds, and in the process become better at what we do. Eleven members of the strategic leadership group are taking modules either in Inclusive Curriculum Leadership or Leading in EDI.

We’ve deliberately spread the candidates for these courses across the organisation, from Quality, Marketing, Estates, People Services etc., with the intention of creating “islands of understanding” from which good practice can flow. We’re working on the basis that if those at the top tend to have similar life experience and cultural reference points, and that is not going to change any time soon, we can at least give them ideas an idea of what other people’s worlds are like so they can better understand them.

This is not a box-ticking exercise to make ourselves look and feel good. It has practical applications which will make us more effective in what we do, leading to better educational experiences and outcomes for our learners and better career opportunities and improved retention for a broader range of our staff. For example, “ambition” is demonstrated in a variety of ways in different cultures. Some may view someone asking for a promotion as pushy, arrogant or disrespectful. So, someone from those cultures may not always feel comfortable putting themselves forward and may be seen as less ambitious than those always asking about their next step on the ladder. The “ambition” may be the same, but importantly, may be perceived differently by their manager. If this cultural nuance is not understood by those in authority, the person concerned would inevitably be overlooked for preferment due to a perceived lack of ambition and end up going somewhere else, meaning the loss of a good member of staff and the inevitable cost and time involved in finding an adequate replacement. Armed with the necessary cultural competence, their manager would understand that they have a responsibility to identify promotion prospects and not to solely rely on who has vocalised a desire to move upward in their teams.

A good place, possibly the best place, to start, is with the board of governors. Board members are used to asking questions around financial and academic performance. It’s their job to do this to measure the success of the college’s senior leaders. But involve them in the conversation about EDI and they can become your critical friends within the institution; the ones to ask the right questions. Persuade them that this is another metric by which they should judge performance and they will be far more supportive of investments requested in support of your policies. And money really does matter here. I know of colleagues who’ve gone to their finance department where they’ve been asked, “do we really need to do an equality impact assessment on such-and-such a policy?” Now, everyone understands that cash is a finite resource which needs to be allocated with care. The point is, do we understand how the impact of deciding to do a particular thing will affect different ethnicities and other groupings among staff and students? Without an assessment, the answer is, “no.” So how can we maintain our commitment to fairness if we make such decisions without finding out first? Helping the board to understand the importance of these kinds of processes will make them more supportive, and in turn, lower the barriers with finance departments.

Most, if not all, colleges make a commitment to EDI. They include it is advertisements. They run courses for staff. But how many actually attempt to measure the impact, or lack of impact, of these kinds of measures? When we look at the performance of our learners, we go into minute detail with a risk management process. We know who has additional support needs. We know who comes from a more disadvantaged postcode. We know where the attainment gaps are. During Covid, we realised that some sections of society were more negatively impacted than others. For example, working and learning from home was more challenging for some. We discovered some were living in homes of multiple occupancy, with fewer digital devices and possibly less bandwidth to go round. We do all this with our learners, but why don’t we do the same for our staff? With them, we tend to measure output rather than outcomes.

It is for these reasons that it is so desirable for every department in the organisation to have a senior manager with a breadth of cultural competence to better understand the needs and attitudes of those working for them. The training relates to everything from cultural and societal norms, methods of communicating, attitudes to authority and so on. It won’t give anyone a perfect insight into someone else’s lived experience, but it will provide some idea of what to look out for, the questions to ask and the language to use.

In the long run (and achieving something which looks like equity will always take time) this should improve recruitment and promotion in all areas so that we can eventually move away from having homogenous leadership teams and see a more diverse group of people rise to the top. Representation isn’t just about “you have to see it to be it” - it’s also about opening up those pathways.

So, would I like to see a kaleidoscope of different ethnicities on the board of governors and the senior leadership team at Milton Keynes College Group? Sounds wonderful. But for now, I know those that are there want to do the right thing, and armed with a good knowledge of cultural competence, I believe that’s what they will do.

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