As the newly appointed Head of Equality and Diversity, I took a moment to think where do I start? What if I made a mistake in this role? All these unanswered questions encouraged me to reach out to colleagues at other colleges.
I was very fortunate that I had made contacts in across the West Midlands due my work in safeguarding. Those people were able to point in the direction of others who, like me, were responsible for equality and diversity. In some cases, in fact, this was the very same person.
Like me, other equality and diversity leads had found themselves isolated in the role, so they had set up working groups which were also able to put me in touch with the right people. Where I couldn’t find anyone from a specific college, safeguarding or equality and diversity policies on their websites pointed me towards the best person to reach out to.
I had never worked with other colleges before, but like sustainability, equity and diversity is among a raft of new challenges that call for a culture shift with a focus on collaboration. Everyone I reached out to was welcoming and supportive because we are travelling a similar journey. We built up closer relationships that have allowed us to share good practice and tried-and-tested resources.
This saved a lot of effort, and it saved money too. Arranging for EDI specialists to come into colleges can be expensive, and we have so much expertise between us. Considering the financial constraints on colleges, this is a very positive, practical and effective move.
We began with a West Midlands Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Network, meeting online two or three times a year to talk about activities and events we were proud of and then discuss areas of development we would like to work on. The experience of colleagues has sped up identifying and implementing solutions and been so effective that we now meet face to face and even visit each other’s settings to build on those benefits.
I know this has helped me grow and develop my confidence in the role. I’m braver for it when introducing new ideas, because I know I can trust the recommendations I work with. The result is a cost-effective and positive experience for all our staff and learners.
It’s also made us want to go further. We have no also launched a BAME network which provides an opportunity for BAME staff to meet up with colleagues from across the region to share their experiences. This helps to increase the confidence of BAME staff to break down barriers to talking about race and ethnicity, and to give voice to their experiences. It also supports talented BAME staff who wish to progress in their careers in sector that remains unrepresentative. Our network helps them by promoting training courses and other opportunities which may not have been highlighted to them.
We also invite guest speakers to share insights about what is happening in the FE sector more broadly, and how diversity is driving improvements in other sectors too. And this collaborative work to amplify the collective voice of BAME staff means our own expertise is being more widely recognised. We support and feed back to other organisations such as Colleges West Midlands, Association of Colleges, Education and Training Foundation and others.
This is a powerful approach that should be adopted in other regions. It’s delivering better practice, more cost effectively, and the ultimate beneficiaries are our students. The hardest thing is to make the first contact, but you’ll be surprised how quickly it builds from there. Promoting events and network meetings on social media is a great multiplier too. When people see what’s happening, it encourages them to come forward.
I have personally found these networks extremely beneficial and inspiring. It is a privilege to work with talented like-minded staff from other colleges – staff I would never have had the opportunity to collaborate with in the past. Wherever you are in the country, I guarantee others are clamouring for the same experience.