Welcome to the white land of FE, Nadhim Zahawi

20 Sep 2021, 17:13

When the Cabinet is more ethnically diverse than FE leadership, the sector should be ashamed, writes Andy Forbes

Well, what a positive move from Boris Johnson! A big welcome to Nadhim Zahawi, England’s first education minister of BAME background, someone who fled Iraq as a Kurdish refugee and started school in a local comprehensive in London.

His rise to prominence is a remarkable story which will resonate with the thousands of FE students whose families have been through similar experiences.

But it’s not just him. Oh, my goodness! The new Conservative cabinet has seven BAME members, not just bland individuals making up the numbers, but leading figures, like Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Sajid Javid.

That’s 23 per cent of the total. And Labour’s shadow cabinet is not far behind – seven out of 32 members, including experienced heavyweights like David Lammy and rising stars like Thangam Debbonaire.

What amazing progress has been made in advancing equality and diversity in the political world.

But wait a minute, before we get too excited here on Planet Education.

Nadhim Zahawi will be overseeing a sector that is stuck way behind others in representing the diversity of England in 2021.

The university and school sectors are not much to write home about, but the FE sector, in terms of its staffing and leadership profile, remains an extraordinary island of white privilege. What’s more, it’s not getting any better.

The FE sector remains an extraordinary island of white privilege

I’ve worked in it for over 30 years and yet, in my most recent position as college principal, I found myself yet again the only Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) representative in meeting after meeting of senior FE colleagues, internal and external.

And I was working for a college where over a third of the students are BAME!

Never mind the “red wall” up north, look around and see the white wall encircling England’s FE sector.

It’s as seemingly impenetrable as The Wall keeping out all sorts of nasties in the TV series Game of Thrones (which does eventually get broken down, but only with the aid of a dragon).

Of 76 FE specialist HMIs at Ofsted, four are BAME (that’s five per cent). Meanwhile the Ofsted senior team has one BAME representative.

Of 18 FE Commissioners, none are BAME.

Of the ESFA Management Board, only one is BAME, and she doesn’t have a background in the FE sector.

The Association of Colleges Board does slightly better, managing three BAME members out of a total of 18. But wherever you look, it’s the same picture, and not a good one.

If we had the same proportion of BAME leaders as the current cabinet – that’s 23 per cent, remember – over 50 college principals would be BAME.

I doubt if we even have half that number, although accurate data is still hard to get.

Meanwhile 17 FE HMIs would be BAME. Four of the FE Commissioner’s team. Four of the ESFA Management Board.

What a thought…

Shame on the FE sector, and on the governing bodies and boards, that have perpetuated this situation for decades.

Shame on the FE sector, and on the governing bodies and boards, that have perpetuated this situation

Perhaps we should put Boris Johnson in charge of appointing senior educational leaders, or Keir Starmer.

But hooray, at least, for the arrival of Nadhim Zahawi, and another loud hooray for the fact that one of his very first visits as education secretary was to an FE college.

How comfortable he looked talking to staff and students, and how promising his first words were, as he emphasised the vital role of education in the “levelling up” agenda.

So let’s hope he sees what needs to be done and challenges us all to level up ethnic diversity in FE leadership and management.

It’s well past time someone took a stand. With his remarkable personal background, Zahawi may just have the courage and determination to do so.

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