Doors still closed to ethnic minorities

September 29, 2000

If qualifications and experience are anything to go by, Rajinder Mann should now be one of further education's rising stars.

In a sector that has been urged by education secretary David Blunkett to work harder to widen participation, she is an obvious candidate for promotion.

Armed with a bachelor of education teaching qualification and a masters in race and education, she became one of further education's few ethnic minority staff to rise to management level.

Starting at Brooklyn College (now North Birmingham College) working with ethnic minority groups, she moved to Bilston Community College to work on a project with disaffected young people, and then on to the Asian community education section, which she was eventually to head.

But when Bilston lost its battle over franchising with the Further Education Funding Council, she was among the first staff to lose their jobs.

Now working for Richmond-upon-Thames local authority as education development officer and a member of a new independent Commission for Black Staff in Further Education, Ms Mann feels the barriers in her further education career are typical of those black staff in the sector have to overcome.

She said: "The fact that there are only two black principals in the whole of further education says something about those barriers. Further education has done nothing to encourage qualified black staff to stay in the sector."

The commission is backed by funding from the Department for Education and Employment and made up of representatives of lecturers' union Natfhe, the Association of Colleges, the FEFC, the Network for Black Managers (of which Ms Mann is a founding member) and individual principals. It was a response to government recommendations following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

The commission has begun a national investigation into discrimination in colleges to try to identify the problems hampering career progression for staff such as Ms Mann.

According to Mike Peters, who chairs the commission, the findings of an initial survey show there is "ignorance and complacency" over the employment of black staff in the sector.

The FEFC survey, which had responses from only 150 out of about 450 colleges, found that the sector has just two black principals and a handful of black managers. Just 3 per cent of lecturers and 5 per cent of support staff are black. Before this data was gathered, there had been no national data on the ethnicity of further education staff.

Mr Peters said: "There are a number of colleges that recognise the importance of diversityI but they are in a distinct minority. The majority of colleges do not understand the principles of equal opportunities and do not recognise that there is a problem. The commission regrets to conclude that the ignorance and complacency of colleges about the issue of the employment of black staff constitutes institutional racism."

The commission is investigating a series of initiatives, including a research programme. These include "witness days" in colleges across the country from October to January to hear the experiences of lecturers, managers, administrators and support staff.

Mr Peters, education director designate for Lambeth, said the witness days and other research would help identify what factors halt the progress of black staff and would also collect examples of good practice.

Better recruitment processes could help, he said. "Colleges need to look critically at what knowledge, skills and abilities they want. They also have to ask what kind of staff profile they want, and what is the best way to attract a sufficiently wide field."

Recruitment and retention of black and ethnic minority students would be helped if there were more senior black and ethnic staff who could be seen as role models, he added.

Tejo Kaur, head of management studies at Wolverhampton College and a member of the commission, agrees that recruitment and promotion procedures in most colleges militate against the efforts of black staff.

She feels that her progress over 13 years in the sector has been slow, despite gaining a postgraduate certificate in education and a masters degree and being a member of "all the right institutes".

She said: "Recruitment procedures can be based on stereotyped perceptions, such as the idea that Asian women are quiet and accepting and are therefore not suitable for a management role."

Paul Mackney, Natfhe general secretary, says many black staff suffer from the "revolving door syndrome", leaving the sector just after being recruited or promoted.

"From our experience, it seems there are substantial numbers of black people who come in and try to work in further education colleges, but believe they are discriminated against. That is reflected in the balance of our legal cases. When they are promoted to management level, problems often arise," he said.

The problems can be the result of "well-intentioned different treatment", with senior staff reluctant to tell new black managers what to do until something goes wrong.

Mr Mackney said the commission's investigation was timely, with the sector about to undergo another big change with the launch of the learning and skills councils and the post-16 inspectorate in April. "We will be pressing the executives of the new regime to put flesh on the bones of the government's good intentions for equal opportunities," he said.

But David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the commission's investigation will not be a witch-hunt.

He said: "The sector is far better than many others, and it has been highly professional in deciding to take this on."

The commission is due to report its findings and recommendations next summer.

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