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Race equality in FE has got stuck

07 December 2016

If anyone hasn’t yet seen David Harewood’s recent BBC documentary, “Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister?”) I urge you to do so. It’s engaging and unaggressive style gave it all the more impact as it laid out the multiple barriers facing black and minority ethnic (BAME) young people. From nursery through to employment, the hurdles to success are shockingly high and – perhaps even more shocking – remain almost completely in place despite decades of effort. It made me revisit the situation in the further education (FE) sector. I’m sorry; it’s not good news. Across England’s colleges around 22% of 16 to 18-year-olds and 29% of adults are from ethnic minority backgrounds. This figure rises sharply in our large cities; In London, for example, 44% of FE college students are BAME. Meanwhile, the latest figures from the Education and Training Foundation’s Workforce Survey (reported by the TES in June) indicate that around 11% of staff in the FE sector during 2014/15 were of BAME background and less than 9% of senior managers. The latest data from the Association of College’s (AoC) Senior Pay Survey indicates that currently 7% of FE college principals are BAME. For deputy and vice principals the figure is also 7%, but most worryingly, at the next level – assistant principal and heads of major functions – the figure is only 4%. This means that far from an increase in the numbers of potential BAME principals of the future coming through, the signs are that the pipeline is drying up. All available evidence points to the fact that any progress being made towards race equality in the FE workforce has ground to a halt. And there is little or no sign of any movement. Given the track record of the FE sector in championing the cause of disadvantaged students, it’s surprising that the issue has slipped so far off the list of priorities. Maybe it’s because of the publicity surrounding the high-profile cohort of BAME principals appointed five to ten years ago. The period from 2006 - 2011 saw the arrival across England of a new generation of articulate senior leaders of ethnic minority background. This was a high water mark for all the efforts that had followed the publication in 2002 of the report of the Commission for Black Staff in Further Education. Perhaps the glass ceiling had finally been broken, rather as had happened a decade earlier for women principals, and the way was now open for a lasting change. But this has proved an illusion and the numbers of BAME top appointments has fallen away steeply. Colleges in the major urban centres of the country have remained unchanged, as far as the composition of senior management teams is concerned. Moreover the politics of austerity following the financial crisis means that most of the funding for bodies supporting race equality in the sector has drained away since 2009, culminating in the closure of the Network for Black Professionals last year. It’s surely not acceptable that the leadership of a sector which promotes the idea of everyone reaching their potential is still so unrepresentative of the population it serves. The sector needs stronger, more financially resilient colleges, yes, but also - now more than ever - more inclusive colleges, and colleges with a leadership that reflects and inspires our shared belief in the positive value of diversity. So let me ask you a question. Will your college ever have a black principal? Andy Forbes is Principal and Chief Executive for the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London AoC has established a new Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Leadership Group which aims to promote this area.