An inspiring conference succeeds through collaboration

Partnership working at its best was evident recently when the Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) and the Network for Black Professionals (NBP) delivered yet another successful conference – Diversity in Challenging Times.

Following on from last year’s joint event, the WLN and the NBP designed and created another inspirational and thought provoking agenda for a crowd of over 150 (women and black/education) professionals. Supported by Protocol National and LSIS, this timely and pertinent event focussed on key equality and diversity issues for managers and leaders in the learning and skills sector. One critical aim of this conference was to encourage more women and more Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) professionals to apply for senior roles in order to redress the imbalances in the sector.

Critically, the current state of diversity both within the sector and in the country as a whole, and the challenges this presents were debated throughout the day, in plenary and in workshops. Other issues discussed covered the significance of strategic leadership as a core ingredient to successfully responding to the challenges. What kind of a leader do colleges need was raised and three leaders described their own personal career journeys.

The spectre of funding was never far away.  The delegates were asked to consider innovative ways to offset the impact of the current and planned cuts, particularly among women and BAME staff. In addition, entrepreneurship was presented as a strategic driver for much needed change. A concept educationalists need to embrace, according to Finton Donohue, Principal of North Hertfordshire College, as it is essential for developing an enterprising as well as a diverse workforce of the future.

The spectre of funding was never far away.”

One particular highlight of the day was hearing Derrick Anderson, CBE, now the Chief Executive of the London Borough of Lambeth describe his life growing up in Britain as the son of a Cuban immigrant, during the last century.  He cited the significant role of mentors and others in his life whose words supported him and drove him forward.

Participants’ evaluations told us what they appreciated about the day, and the opportuntiy to network as well as interesting debates and workshops featured highly.

The importance of mentoring is recognised by both the WLN and the NBP as they have set up and jointly contribute to a mentoring programme managed by Rajinder Mann of the award winning Black Leadership Initiative.  The BLI also provides coaching support, secondment and work shadowing opportunities.

A panel of experts expressed their thoughts about the challenges surrounding equality and diversity and then answered tough questions from the floor.

The disquieting facts quoted by Helen Hughes of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that there are currently only ten BAME Members of Parliament and that talented women are missing from the top jobs in this country is a salient reminder for F/HE to pay singular regard to codes of practice when making appointments. There is a high price to pay for not electing more women onto boards and not reducing the pay gap.

Rob Wye of LSIS challenged the audience to accept responsibility for the diversity agenda and to create the ‘golden thread of equality and diversity’ in their institutions.

of the 53 colleges that appointed principals this year, 43% were women.”

Meanwhile, on the same panel, Carole Stott, Chair of City Lit governing body, echoed the responsibility refrain but for governors who need not only to be more diverse in their recruitment practices but also need training and upskilling for their roles. The fourth panel member was Commander Jerry Saville of the Metropolitan Police Service and he had this to say about learning from the challenges: “It’s time to turn the rhetoric into operation.”

Robin Landman, Chief Executive at the NBP and Sally Dicketts, Chair of the WLN co-facilitated the day and introduced the various keynote speakers as well summarising the main messages from the conference to send to relevant ministers. Maxine Room, Principal and CEO of Lewisham College opened the day’s event by setting the scene in terms of the state of diversity in FE with an astonishing array of statistics of which one, in particular, stands out.

If FE leadership was to reflect the national profile of 11.4%, there would be 40 BAME principals nationally – but there are only 16!

For women the news has slightly improved – of the 53 colleges that appointed principals this year, 43% were women. There is still some chipping away at the glass ceiling to be done.*

What key messages were taken away from this challenging diversity conference? The sector needs more women and BAME staff to apply for top jobs and Protocol National’s Director of College Leadership Services – Peter Daley’s contribution in supporting those seeking leadership roles has been outstanding.  He offered sage advice to women and BAME professionals considering promotion: play to your strengths and get to the core of what you can bring to make the match.

If FE leadership was to reflect the national profile of 11.4%, there would be 40 BAME principals nationally – but there are only 16!”

It’s clearly time to shift the sector’s mindset to overcome the funding issues and develop a diverse and more risk-taking workforce, with the college as the ‘engine of change’.  Thanks to Finton Donohue for suggesting that image to us in his keynote address.

The outcomes of one particular workshop facilitated by Vicki Fagg, Principal of the College of North West London and Gary Chinn, Principal of Greenwich Community College provided the third key message of the day: the sector’s resilience when faced with challenges and our determination to protect students’ interests.

Three significant outcomes to help redress the potentially negative equality impacts of the funding changes were suggested by those in this workshop. Specifically, these were:

1. Seek solutions and case studies from the wider sector and promote them widely

2. Lobby against cuts which have negative impact on equality issues e.g. ESOL fees

3. Press for national equality impact assessment of cuts.

Nick Linford, Dr Christine Rose, John Stone, Derek Hooper and Wally Brown CBE were amongst a dozen other workshop leaders that engaged participants with practical strategies and tips to take back to the workplace.

An optimistic future for women and black professionals in the learning and skills sector is not guaranteed. Funding reductions affect women and BAME staff significantly, but events which inspire and motivate, such as this diversity conference, keep the spirit of expectancy alive and confirm the power of collaboration and the commitment to and challenge for change going.

To find out more about the WLN please see and for NBP please go to

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