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Race, racism and the FE sector - Professor Kevin Orr

26 October 2023

By Professor Kevin Orr, emeritus professor at the University of Huddersfield

Inequality in education and employment associated with race in this country are exposed in the stark language of a government report:

“Black and minority ethnic[1] groups tend to have higher levels of post 16 education, when compared with those from the White British group, yet not necessarily better labour market outcomes. …most black and minority ethnic groups have larger proportions doing KS5 [Key Stage 5] and going on to HE, but this does not necessarily lead to higher proportions in employment and lower proportions claiming out of work benefits” (Anderson and Nelson 2021, p33).

That conclusion in a study for the Department of Education (DfE) belies the blithe assumption behind much education policy that has connected participation in education unproblematically to better employment opportunities and so to upward social mobility. That education policy and the assumption on which it is based have seen educational institutions “transformed into drivers of capital accumulation in a new form of exchange where learning equals earning” as Brown, Lauder and Cheung (2020, p1) have described in their book The Death of Human Capital. They make clear in their detailed critique of human capital theory that for some and especially for those within certain black and ethnic minorities, learning does not always equal earning.

Elsewhere, much has been written about race and education around schools and universities, but very much less in the context of colleges and VET. Reflecting on that omission, last year, the government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC) expressed concern that “some perspectives tend to dominate the policy debate”. “Widening access to university, for example, has not brought the dividends many hoped for, and has diverted attention away from the 50% that pursue other routes (SMC, 2022, p11).

In addressing that imbalance, I am not proposing FE as an alternative solution to the problems of inequality that universities have failed to solve. FE has much work to do to address racism within its own organisations. Amarjit Basi, a former college principal and founder member of the Black FE Leadership Group (BFELG), wrote in an article for FE News that: “The FE system’s propensity to allow race inequalities to persist, fester and threaten the very communities we all purport to represent is untenable. Apart from affecting the esteem of students, curtailing the careers of staff and diminishing the reputation of local institutions, it perpetrates a climate of fear.”

I am suggesting that FE can make a major difference, but FE needs to examine itself and to change if the sector is to challenge racism and to help alter the statistics at the beginning of this blog.

My approach is informed by Karen Evans, who argued that in tackling social inequality more generally, “understanding how VET constitutes part of the problem as well as potential solution should lead to a more realistic appraisal of the scope for VET to make a difference” (Evans, 2019, p457). Colleges and the FE system are integral to the society in which they operate, with all of its flaws, and they are shaped by society. Evans went on to note that “the social landscapes in which people live their lives and in which different configurations of VET develop profoundly influence the opportunities afforded by VET for young people and adults”.

To artificially extract FE and VET from their context would be to ignore what has affected how they operate. Similarly, to ask FE and VET to transform that context is unrealistic. Nevertheless, FE has a very important role to play in recognising and responding to racial disparity, as I hope to explain in this blog. Initially, I will clarify my stress on employment, and I will define and justify the terms I am using.

I have already emphasised employment in this blog for two reasons. Firstly, the FE sector is distinguished by its focus on education and training directed towards the workplace. Examining the connection between students completing FE courses and opportunities for decent employment is therefore an important way to evaluate the sector’s effectiveness. Secondly, the SMC’s useful and robust definition of social mobility has informed the writing of this blog. That definition is predicated on employment: “Social mobility is the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.” (SMC, undated).

With that definition in mind, let me turn to the account of the 2021 inaugural conference of the BFELG, now known as the Black Leadership Group. At that conference, there were many questions asked that might be addressed by research to better understand the lived experience of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds working and studying in the FE sector. As BFELG concluded: “These questions demand that we consider why strategies and actions implemented to address race inequality in FE since the inception of the 2010 Equality Act, have palpably failed students, staff and communities.”

I have written this blog as a partial response to that demand.

Talking about race

Researching and writing about this topic with my colleagues James Avis and Paul Warmington, we have been careful to explain how we use a term like race:

“…our understanding is that while race may be ‘unreal’ in the sense that it is not a coherent scientific category, its effects … are real and have innumerable consequences. …In short, we live race in practice, experiencing the world in ways that are mediated by racialised social categories and relationships. These are divisive and often arbitrary, nevertheless, we live, day-to-day, as if race has meaning (Warmington, 2009). It is not sufficient, therefore, merely to regard race as an epiphenomenon of other more ‘real’ relationships, such as class. The other implication of our understanding of race is that it must be treated as ‘more than just a variable’ (Lynn and Dixson, 2013, p3). As Apple reminds us, ‘Race is not a stable category … “It” is not a thing, a reified object that can be measured as if it were a simple biological entity. Race is a construction, a set of fully social relationships’ (Apple, 2001, p204)” (Avis, Orr and Warmington, 2017, p294).

That understanding of race as a social construction that is lived in practice emerges from much of what I have examined in this blog. It is also important, however, to separate race as being a social construction and a lived experience from race being a causal factor for that lived experience. Race is never a causal factor, though racism may be.

In a powerful blog for AoC, Suki Dhesi, vice principal at HSDC, said: “Racial inequalities most definitely exist in our FE colleges. If you disagree, just ask your students”. In her blog, Dhesi cited the YMCA’s (2020) report Young and Black: the Young Black Experience of Institutional Racism in the UK. That YMCA report, based on a survey of 557 “black and mixed ethnicity young people aged between 16-30 years old”, found that 95 per cent of young black people “have heard and witnessed the use of racist language at school” and 78 per cent had done so in the workplace. The YMCA’s definition of institutional racism was informed by that of the MacPherson report (1999) into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent botched police investigation (see YMCA, 2020, p6). Similarly, a TUC report from 2022 entitled Still Rigged: Racism in the UK Labour Market draws on McPherson for its definition of institutional racism. I have found the TUC’s categorisation and definitions of everyday, institutional and structural racism as experienced in the workplace to be helpful in analysing the situation for students in FE, too. Just replace the word college for the word work, though of course very many FE students are also workers. I reproduce those categories and definitions here for reference:

  • Everyday racism describes recurrent, systemic, and familiar practices within society that work to the detriment of BME people. It can consist of ‘banter’ and being marked out as being different from other dominant groups at work. It can consist of everyday slights, snubs or insults that can make us feel unwelcome, second-class or stereotyped.

  • Following the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 19992, institutional racism in the UK was defined as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
  • Structural racism refers to wider political and social disadvantage and affects individuals daily. Racism is a system of domination and oppression with a deep-rooted historical foundation. It divides and organises society in a way that structurally disadvantages certain ethnic groups. For example, consider the fact that BME households have higher rates of poverty or the high rates of death from Covid-19 among BME groups (TUC, 2020, p6).

I refer to these types of racism in what follows.

The 2021 report from the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, referred to as the Sewell Report after the commission’s chair, Tony Sewell, was “met by an avalanche of criticism” (Syal, 2021; and see Tikly, 2022 among others for a critique). I do not wish to add to that criticism here except to note that Sewell had surprisingly little to say about FE or vocational and technical education. More generally the report concluded that: “It is very difficult to judge on a national level the extent to which racism could be a determining factor in educational outcomes amongst ethnic minority groups. However, the fact that ethnic groups within the same system can have quite divergent educational outcomes, and that even within the major ethnic groups there are quite distinct trends, suggests that other factors may be more influential.” (Sewell, 2021, p69).

Quite what those other factors might be are not explained by Sewell, and that finding is in direct contradiction to much of the evidence cited in his own report, and in this blog, indeed. Nevertheless, it is worth acknowledging the danger of what statisticians call the “ecological fallacy”, which is when inferences about individuals are determined by the inferences about the social groups of which they may be a part. In other words, people are individuals and may not share the experiences or characteristics of the social group to which they may ostensibly belong.

People are not their postcode, even though postcodes are frequently used to predict behaviours, for example. Statistics help us to perceive patterns, which in this case might suggest racialisation associated with FE and VET, but statistics cannot tell us about an individual’s aspirations, talents and the obstacles they have to overcome. Statistics can, however, let us know that something is happening.

Participation in FE and employment: what do the statistics tell us?

In the 10 years to July 2021, the total number of people enrolled in English FE including apprenticeships reduced sharply from 4.2 million to 2.5 million. At the same time the percentage of people in FE from the Asian, black, mixed and “other” ethnic groups, as defined in the government’s statistics, increased from 19.3 per cent to 23.6 per cent of the student cohort. The total number of students from Asian, black, mixed and other ethnic backgrounds still fell from 796,730 to 569,820, while the number of white students fell from 3.3 million to 1.9 million. In the academic year ending July 2021, white people made up 76.5 per cent of all FE students, while they constitute 81.0 per cent of the overall population of England. In 2021, black people made up 7.0 per cent of people in FE, and 4.2 per cent of the overall population (all statistics from ESFA, 2023). Within a national perspective, FE is more ethnically diverse than the population as a whole, but that national perspective obscures significant local differences that reflect the local populations. The situation in London colleges with the city’s unmatched diversity (see ONS, 2012) is very different to colleges in the south west or north east, for example. To be clear, in this blog I am taking a national overview rather than outlining regional differences.

We also know from SMC research that students “of minority ethnic backgrounds …have lower propensities to drop out of education at age 16, compared to the White British population (for whom 10 per cent leave)” (Allen, Parameshwaran and Thomson, 2016, p6). That same research found that the dropout rate was 7 per cent for black students, 8 per cent for students from Pakistani and Bangladeshi students and just 3 per cent for students from an Indian background. So, how does that greater engagement with education among ethnic minority students impact their later employment?

Yaojun Li, a professor of social change at the University of Manchester, produced a report on the social mobility of ethnic minorities in Britain in the fifty years to 2019 for the government’s controversial Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (which eventually produced the Sewell Report mentioned above). Li identified “more signs of social progress than social regress” but noted that: “The greatest barrier [to social mobility] …is the first hurdle – gaining employment – and disadvantages are greater during recession years, especially for men in the Black and Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.”

That conclusion is borne out in recent figures for apprenticeship starts, which differ to those for FE courses. Apprenticeship entails employment, after all. The data show that, in the year ending July 2021:

  • white people made up 85.7 per cent of apprenticeship starts and 81.0 per cent of the overall population in England (based on data from the 2021 Census)
  • Asian people made up 6.1 per cent of apprenticeship starts and 9.6 per cent of the overall population
  • black people made up 4.2 per cent of apprenticeship starts and 4.2 per cent of the overall population

(DfE, 2023a)

The hurdle that Li identified for people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds is most apparent in employment figures, however. The overall UK unemployment rate in October-December 2022 was 3.8 per cent. The rate was 3.1 per cent for people from a white ethnic background, compared to 7.5 per cent for people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, although the same data showed substantial variation between different ethnic minority groups. People from what the government defines as “other ethnic backgrounds” had an unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent, and people from “mixed/multiple ethnic background (11.3 per cent)” and “a Pakistani ethnic background (8.7 per cent)” had the highest rates (Powell and Francis-Devine, 2023, p2).

In 2016, the TUC analysed data from the 2015 Labour Force Survey to evaluate how the attainment of educational qualifications related to the employment of workers they described as being from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. The TUC’s findings are sobering for anyone who cares about VET and values the opportunities that VET can offer, but those findings indicate the persistent effect of structural racism.

  • BME workers who have obtained vocational qualifications at HNC/HND level are almost three times as likely to be unemployed as white workers with the same level of qualification.
  • The unemployment level for BME workers who have obtained city and guild or craft based qualifications is two and a half times that of white workers with the same level of qualification.
  • The employment gap between BME workers and white workers who have completed Apprenticeships stands at 23 per cent.

The TUC’s analysis included Scotland, Wales and the English regions and they conclude that “although the picture varies, no matter where BME workers live they experience disproportionate levels of unemployment” (TUC, 2016, p3). As I indicated above, statistics can let us know something is happening; learning on vocational and technical courses does not always lead to earning, especially for people from certain ethnic minorities.

Even when people are employed, there is disparity associated with ethnicity evident in what people earn. People from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean ethnic groups on average earn less than their white British peers. “This means that these minority ethnic groups face a significant ‘double whammy’ of fewer in employment and lower earnings when compared to White British” (Anderson and Nelson, 2021, p40). In their report for the DfE, Anderson and Nelson, however, also found that, “Conversely, Chinese, Indian and Black African individuals have higher median earnings than White British individuals in the most recent years.” So, the picture is mixed but the available statistics suggest that engagement with education or even VET does not necessarily lead to better employment outcomes for students from ethnic minorities. So, widening participation in FE does not always lead to upward social mobility as defined by the SMC.

The experience of students from black and ethnic minority backgrounds

In a study carried out with James Avis and Paul Warmington, we were interested in better understanding how young people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds had come to enrol on their vocational courses (Avis et al., 2018). In our interviews with young people from those backgrounds we found evidence of students relying on what might be termed “cold knowledge” sources like Google to inform their decisions to take vocational courses rather than “hot knowledge” from friends, tutors or family members (see Slack et al., 2014 for more on the idea of hot and cold knowledge).

One student, Ty, reflected on his decision to take up a sports apprenticeship: “To be honest, there was no alternative. I had to, I felt like I had to do it because if I stayed at my high school, because I wasn’t well behaved at my High School, so if I stayed at my high school, I don’t think I had a realistic chance of succeeding or attaining well. So, I think for myself, I had to look at it, right, I’ve finished high School, my GCSEs don’t represent what I’m capable of, so I really have to go out there and I really have to start shaving a career pathway for myself. However, these alternatives, they were all my decision, I mean there was no influence at this stage from my parents, family or friends.”

That reliance on what we have called cold sources over hot sources of knowledge or advice may mean that black and ethnic minority students are more likely to find themselves on courses that are not appropriate, or which have low status. One of our students at a large college in a major multicultural city who was taking a healthcare qualification, and who we have called Charles, told us about his decision to enrol at college: “Perhaps I was encouraged, maybe not explicitly, to undertake a vocational

course, but that kind of meant that particular style of learning was something that was encouraged, particularly in my sort of GCSE years, so year 10 and year 11 that kind of hands-on learning approach and that actually reflected some of the courses that I took in GCSE.”

Charles went on to express ambivalence about FE colleges and the vocational course he had taken: “I think I expected it to, perhaps I expected it to be a bit, like going to a further education college, perhaps I expected it to be a bit like looked down upon, if that makes sense, particularly like where you had a lot of people doing A-Levels and so on and so forth. But I think for me and for what I was trying to achieve, I felt like that was quite a good route.”

While most of those we spoke to, including Charles, were content with the choices they had made to study on vocational courses at college, some experienced a sense of marginalisation and dislocation. Maya was taking a course in hair and beauty, but said she had been unable to do a course on African-Caribbean hair due to a staff member on sick leave, and felt in the course she did do, there was little or no consideration of hair like hers. Maya was constrained by the college itself and by the opportunity structure available in the provincial city where her college was located, which offered very limited access to hairdressing training for African-Caribbean hair. The opportunity structure and social networks available to our participants in a large metropolitan city were qualitatively different and provided greater access to relevant training (Avis et al 2018, p49), which confirms Evans’s (2019, p458) point noted above that: “The social landscapes in which people live their lives and in which different configurations of VET develop profoundly influence the opportunities afforded by VET for young people and adults.”

That understanding aligns with the TUC’s definition of structural racism, which “divides and organises society in a way that structurally disadvantages certain ethnic groups” (TUC, 2020, p6). Maya was certainly disadvantaged by the priorities set by the college.

The role of teachers

The Sewell report stated that “if there is racial bias within schools or the teaching profession, it has limited effect”. That view is contradicted by the YMCA’s (2020) study which found that “49 per cent of young Black people feel that racism is the biggest barrier to success at school, while 50 per cent say the biggest barrier is teacher perceptions of them – e.g. being seen as too aggressive”. Again with regard to schools, Wallace found a similar description of teachers’ perceptions to that expressed by the YMCA’s survey from one of his young black participants who came from a middle class background. “There’s a … black identity that my white teachers try to strap onto us… They expect us to fail … they expect us to struggle money wise… they expect us to fight each other … When we challenge or exceed their expectations, it’s like they can’t even recognise us [as black].” (Wallace, 2018, p. 474)

Teachers’ perceptions matter because they fundamentally affect interactions with students which are crucial to a student’s success or failure. To quote Suki Dhesi again, “To root out racism, and understand the actions required, I believe we need to understand racism, from the students’ perspective.” At least in schools, many young people from black and ethnic minorities perceive prejudice from their teachers, which may be described as everyday racism in the terms adopted by the TUC set out above. But it amounts to institutional racism through its persistence and through the gatekeeping role that teachers have within institutions. Importantly, there is also evidence of individual students from black and ethnic minorities being supported and encouraged by conscientious and committed school teachers.

Frustratingly, there has been much less research on this area within the FE sector, but similar experiences are to be expected in our colleges, as we found in our study of young people from black and ethnic minorities studying in FE (Avis et al. 2018; see also Chadderton and Wischmann, 2014). For example, one of our participants, Ty, specifically praised his personal tutor at college for his commitment to the success of students from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

A significant issue for the FE sector is that the FE workforce is not as ethnically diverse as the students studying in FE institutions. According to the most recent government survey (DfE, 2023b), in the 2021-22 academic year, 18.9 per cent of the FE workforce identified as belonging to an ethnic minority group. Around 6.0 per cent of the workforce identified as Asian or Asian British, 5.7 per cent identified as white minority groups and 3.8 per cent as Black or Black British. Only 1.3 per cent of teachers in FE identified themselves as Asian/Asian British or Any other Asian background and 1.9% identified as Black/African/Caribbean/Black British or African background. For comparison, 10.1 per cent of the working age population in England were recorded as Asian or Asian British, 8.8 per cent as white minority groups and 4.4 per cent as Black or Black British in the 2021 Census. Leadership is important, and in the 2021-22 academic year, 11.1 per cent of FE leaders identified as belonging to an ethnic minority group, with 3.4 per cent identifying as Asian or Asian British and just 1.6 per cent Black or Black British.

Those statistics tell us something is happening, and colleges should question why they are not employing more staff from black and ethnic minority backgrounds as teachers or leaders. Colleges might start to address these discrepancies by encouraging people from ethnic minorities to work in the sector, perhaps by approaching former students.

Conclusion and recommendations

Education plays a contradictory role in society, where it is both a means for the reproduction of inequality, and at the same time education offers individuals a means to overcome the limitations into which they may have been born. FE in particular can be positively transformative for some students, and the decisions made by teachers and leaders in colleges can increase students’ opportunities, especially for students from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. In other words, people working in FE can do much to address the racial disparities that so blatantly exist.

A very good place to start addressing those disparities is with the recommendations of the Black Leadership Group, as set out in their report for the Welsh Government (BLG, 2022) entitled An Initial Assessment of The Further Education Sector’s Contribution to the Welsh Government’s Anti-Racist Wales Action Plan. That report, and other publications produced by the BLG (formerly the BFELG), are well worth reading in full, but among their twelve recommendations for the Welsh government are the following:

  • “All further education institutions should develop and publish Anti-racist Action Plans that are live documents, in a prescribed format with measurable quantitative and qualitative targets and milestones for intended outcomes, particularly for those actions that span a number of years, including towards 2030.
  • To underpin strategy and practice and to measure progress, as a matter of urgency … to support improvements in the collection, monitoring and/or reporting of comprehensive, comparable, ethnicity related data for learners and apprentices (by level), staff, HR processes, incidences of bullying, harassment, discrimination and racism, and lived experiences of Black learners, apprentices and staff.
  • The Welsh Government has a vital role to play in showing demonstrable leadership of Anti-racism by: collaborating with ColegauCymru [the body with responsibility for promoting FE in Wales] and further education institutions to articulate a clear vision for Anti-racism within the sector and what this means in practice….”

As these examples of the recommendations indicate and as the BLG report states, action needs to be taken at an institutional and national level if that action is to be effective in addressing the effects of racism (see Avis, Orr and Warmington, 2022). Collecting relevant data as specified above allows evaluation of the success or failure of that action, or else college anti-racist or diversity policies can become meaningless.

To quote Amarjit Basi once again, “The FE system’s propensity to allow race inequalities to persist, fester and threaten the very communities we all purport to represent is untenable.” The evidence suggests there is strong commitment from within the FE sector to tackle racism, but as yet that commitment has not been matched by government. Nevertheless, the decisions that college leaders and teachers make today and tomorrow can help black and ethnic minority students to free themselves from the structures and attitudes that threaten to restrict them.


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Anderson, O. and Nelson, M. (2021) Post 16 education and labour market activities, pathways and outcomes (LEO) Research report May 2021 Department for Education

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Avis, J., Orr, K., & Warmington, P. (2018) Black students in VET: Learner experiences in an English metropolitan and provincial setting. In C. Nägele & B. E. Stalder (Eds.), Trends in vocational education and training research. Proceedings of the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Vocational Education and Training Network (VETNET) pp. 44-52.

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[1] In this blog I reproduce the terms for ethnicity that are used in the various publications that I quote, and those terms differ. Otherwise, I follow the government’s guidelines set out in Writing about ethnicity available at

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