Earlier this year the death of George Floyd sparked global outcry and a closer look at the systemic racism in our education system, with many universities acknowledging the need to step up and do more to combat these injustices.
However addressing racial inequality shouldn’t stop at higher education. Further education (FE) is also problematic, and while the number of BAME students has increased to 30 per cent, there has been a sharp decline in BAME college leadership (down from 13 per cent in 2017 to five to six per cent today), and barriers to access and attainment gaps for BAME students compared with their peers continue to linger in specialist and vocational education colleges.
These concerns were also recently raised by the Black Further Education Leadership Group in an open letter to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education, which stated that “at a time of elevated advocacy for FE, failure to recognise the insidious nature of racism undermines the sector’s ability to fully engage with all its consistent communities.”
As the Group also rightly pointed out, FE plays a crucial role in the Government’s Covid-19 economic recovery plan, but until these systemic inequalities are addressed not only will “the vision for a ‘levelling up’ of society will remain an aspiration” but the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities will be further exacerbated.
With this in mind, how can the sector address these fault lines to adopt a sustainable and inclusive approach to FE?
Welcoming and inclusive attitudes should run through every aspect of FE and a proactive and transparent approach to addressing racism will go a long way in developing a positive and inclusive culture. This should be evident at all levels of FE and can include, for example, the addition of racial equality and anti-racist pedagogies in teacher training and professional development; publishing student performance and student and staff profile data by ethnicity, along with strategies to address any gaps; and diversifying the demographics of boards and advisory groups to include people from BAME backgrounds.
Requiring a lot of introspection, this is one of the more challenging aspects of addressing racism, but it is incredibly important. Promoting inclusivity means the sector needs to shed its assumptions and unconscious bias and this can be achieved through formal training, particularly for those on the front line of student engagement. This might involve working more with BAME communities to undermine bias and replace it with new information, introduce ‘blind’ recruitment processes, and proactively countering stereotypes.
BAME communities are often labelled as a ‘hard to reach’ demographic but this can be overcome, in part, by working with community organisations that are integrated and have strong relationships with prospective BAME students. Working with First Class Legacy, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has already seen success in this approach, helping bridge the gap between BAME young people and the skills, training and employment opportunities available to them.
Taking another learning from the WMCA is that while opportunities are available to young people one of the main barriers to the BAME community is that there is often little to no evidence of people who look like them, or who share their background in these career roles. To address this, they have developed a community connector programme which provides BAME students with wrap around support whilst they are in college or at work which has improved retention rate within the pilot cohort from 50 to 87 per cent.
FE is at a crossroads, due to pressure from both Black Lives Matter and Covid-19, and if it is to realise its full potential and help boost productivity, employment and skills capabilities, it is critical that racial inequality is addressed through a collective effort and at all levels of the sector.