What lessons should teachers and managers in education and training learn from one of the most appalling race murders in recent British history? What gains can we salvage from an incident that – in just a few moments of senseless and stupid bigotry – shocked a nation, destroyed a life, tore a family apart and led to an entire police force being labelled “institutionally racist”?
Sir William Macpherson, who conducted the Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993, spoke in his report of a “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,” he said, “in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”.
These words from the retired and distinguished High Court judge returned to dominate the headlines as the long-awaited guilty verdicts against Gary Dobson and David Norris for the stabbing of Lawrence at last brought a modicum of justice.
However, such attitudes and behaviours are not unique to the Metropolitan Police; Macpherson’s call for radical reform of training, race awareness programmes and better minority recruitment and promotion methods apply to all of us.
Fundamental education and training reforms were demanded in 70 far-reaching recommendations.
The root causes of racism, he said, should be tackled by amending the national curriculum to ensure that it “aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism, in order better to reflect the needs of a diverse society”.
This was no time for soul-searching but for action. Hence, the Black Leadership Initiative (BLI) was created in October 2002, as a government-funded pilot programme in response to recommendations from the Commission for Black Staff in Further Education (FE), itself launched in direct response to Macpherson’s plea.
The Commission report showed the significant extent to which BME staff were under-represented at all levels in FE. Our actions and reform programmes have resulted in progress. In 1998, 14 per cent of students in FE colleges were from BME backgrounds, yet there was only one black principal (0.2 per cent) in over 450 colleges.
Today, 22 per cent of students are from BME communities, and 16 (4.6 per cent) of 347 principals are BME, along with four per cent of senior managers and 7.4 per cent of other managers. Yes progress is being made, though there is clearly still some way to go.
The BLI called for no favouritism, quota system, positive discrimination or any other special treatment. Rather, we set about educating the educated, taking the message directly to college principals and governors, while supporting the recruitment, retention and promotion of black staff into future leadership roles – offering a range of training and development opportunities along the way such as mentoring, coaching, work-shadowing and secondments to middle-management posts.
The response of progressive principals and senior managers was rapid and deeply supportive, to the extent that one in five college principals and chairs of governors are now trained BLI mentors. And we have now gone into partnership with Teach First to extend this work throughout state schools, and begun working with higher education to bring teachers, experienced professionals and students together not only to discuss the impact ethnicity has on educational achievement and aspiration but to tackle the root causes of underachievement.
This is important not just for the teachers but also for their students, the students’ families and the wider community because they are seen as pioneers, trendsetters and role models.
The aspirations of young people are influenced by the adults they can identify with and if they see people like themselves in positions of influence and responsibility in education, commerce and the professions, they are more likely to believe that it is possible for them to achieve this too.
We have race equality legislation but that in itself isn’t sufficient. It’s about people being willing and able to take hold of the culture of organisations and change things for the better. As we reach the 10th anniversary of the BLI we have to ask where we will be in ten years time. How do we keep up the momentum with diminishing funds in the current financial crisis?