Mon,12 Oct 2020

Further Education leadership, governance and management is at a crossroads

A call to action to all FE Chairs…. 

Further Education leadership, governance and management does not adequately represent the make-up of some of the communities it serves.

How did that happen? 18 years ago we were making real progress. Since then, whether it’s in the field of equality, cohesion, integration or a representative workforce in FE, the events of this year have shown that we may have gone backwards or perhaps we hadn’t really moved forward at all but stood still?

We are better than this FE.

COVID-19 will prove to be one of the most profound global events of our lifetimes, cruelly exacerbating inequalities that already existed, demolishing the confidence of communities, threatening to turn people against each other, fuelled by atrociously racist rhetoric from those who seek to divide us.

Alongside events in the US and through the reinvigoration of the ‘black lives matter’ movement across the globe, people from diverse communities have been deeply affected, soul searching, trying to find direction and questioning their place in society and in their professions, whilst hoping deeply that this is the moment where wider society understands and acts.

Why is it that we feel like this after everything we’ve previously committed to do?

Being defined by the colour of our skin or the religion we believe in and not the individuals we are and the people we aspire to be. Didn’t we leave all this behind through three decades of equality and cohesion policies?

We must be better than this FE.

Let’s start at the top. At Board level.

We must be better than this FE.

As a person of colour from an ethnically diverse community and the Chair of the Board at Luminate Education Group, one of the largest education groups in the country, I direct this article to you, my fellow chairs of governors. Yours is such an important role right now. From you stems the vision of your organisation. You define its purpose. Even more crucially, the values and behaviours at board level and within your executive team originate and are amplified from and by you. Your starting point isn’t to simply diversify your board. It must be to confidently drive positive ongoing cultural change. Diversification of your board is a part of the journey and you’ll do it because that’s what you must do to better serve your communities and be reflective of them.

I am so heartened by the work of the Black FE Leadership Group (BFELG) and the contents of its 10 Point Plan and indeed the leadership of the AoC in its work on EDI with the National Centre for Diversity, where I am a patron. I am even more pleased that the Rt Hon Gillian Keegan MP Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills has provided a ringing endorsement of the core messages contained in the BFELG’s call for action and has pledged to eliminate racism and to address racial inequalities in FE. This is fantastic commitment – but frankly, it needs to quickly turn into action as I feel we have been here before.

I know my fellow chairs may feel a lack of sure-footedness on this agenda and there will undoubtedly be uncomfortable conversations as we confront a historical legacy. Whilst its helpful to have government endorsement – and a fully mandated annual workforce survey for the FE sector would be a great place to start – we have it in our hands as leaders of our boards to take action and start now to drive positive culture change and diversify our boards and our executive and management teams. That’s where, as chairs, we are really well placed. We do so much in further education already in supporting diverse communities of learners that is positive and that we can truly celebrate. It’s a great platform to build upon and we need to approach diversity with the same positive, ‘can-do’, make a difference mindset.

Diversity for me, is about celebrating difference as much as it is about finding out about the things that we have in common and bind us together and – as a board chair and leader – about harnessing the diverse range of experiences and talents that individuals from different backgrounds bring to working together in teams. Whilst I appreciate that there is a lot of evidence to say that greater diversity in organisations enables them to perform better. In my experience, that superior performance is only ever realised if you have leadership and management that knows how to support and manage that diversity well. You get it because you have trained, developed, challenged, supported, enabled and encouraged your board and leadership and management to work with diversity. That’s how you land outstanding performance. It’s the key. And for me, it’s fundamental to the drive and development of a positive culture.

It requires you as chair to be incredibly emotionally intelligent and authentic. To look beyond the person in front of you and work out what really makes that person tick. To sew that individual into the wider fabric of your board or executive team. By doing this, you deploy not just the individual’s talent for the role but also their passion and their emotion. It helps foster better understanding between individuals and it creates fertile ground for your board members and senior executives. It also helps them to better adapt to difference and unprecedented change. This is fundamental to great team working and contributing to a positive culture in an organisation.

We can be brilliant together FE.

Shaid Mahmood, Chair of Luminate Education Group
(and signatory to the BFELG’s Open Letter to Address Systemic Racism in FE).