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A Covid-restricted Black History Month finishes this week, the posters of famous black role models in entertainment, sport, science and politics will be rolled up and removed from campus foyers, and lecturers and students will be left to focus on the day-to-day task of levelling up the equal opportunities playing field. These past few weeks will be scrutinised for their impact on public perceptions of black people’s contributions - too often overlooked - to UK business, culture and equal rights.
One project 15 years in the making has used opportunities offered annually by Black History Month to garner support for a first ever Access or GCSE course in black British history. The idea for the qualification comes from former Leeds City College English lecturer Peter Ejedewe, who hopes to launch a pilot scheme in the early part of next year before an official roll-out in FE colleges next September. “There is currently no accredited qualification below postgrad level,” he says. “You can study black American history but not black British!”
Contrary to the often common-held belief that black British history started with the 1948 arrival of MV Empire Windrush from the West Indies, it reaches back as far as Septimius Severus, the black caesar who expanded the Roman empire further than any predecessor and died in northern Scotland. Black British history is so unsung - do readers know, for instance, that Charles Ignatius Sancho was a black British writer and composer in the 18th century and the first known Briton of African heritage to vote in an election, that Queen Victoria adopted a black princess or that more than 15,000 West Indian soldiers served in the British army in the first world war?
“How do we find the next generation of black academics?” asks Peter. How many black students are just following the norm? Is FE serving them properly? Will having an annual Black History Month do? If any student, regardless of ethnic background, is interested in black British history, how do they ever get up to postgrad level? Are courses being offered that will really get them on board?
Peter estimates around 50 students per average college would be wiling to try the pilot course, and as many as 200 per college could sign up for the first real course that would cover black history across culture, politics, music, sport and social issues - a wide curriculum that could attract many young people.
In all sorts of guises, Black History Month 2020 has been highlighting role models to inspire the next generation of students - be it the ground-breaking portraits of successful British Africans by leading black photographer by John Ferguson in Ipswich; an online exhibition celebrating black women breaking barriers and making history seen through the work of British Nigerian artist Latifat Obanigba; or the Barking and Dagenham College screening of three iconic films starring the late Chadwick Boseman taking his highly focused approach to playing black characters of real cultural significance.
The films - Black Panther (based on a Marvel comic’s fictional African American hero ), 42 (a biography of Jackie Robinson, the first black athlete to play in Major League basketball) and Come on up (a biographical musical about singer James Brown) - reflect the importance former professional basketball player Errol Seaman, now the college’s STEM development curriculum manager, attaches to role models - whether they be played out by celebrities in the media or at the other end of the spectrum by FE teachers on the ground.
“More than anything, I’ve learnt that you can’t just start preaching to a young person. People will listen and learn 1/ if they know you care about them, and 2/ if there’s respect between you and that other person.
“I’ve never pushed information down people’s throats - I just carry myself as a professional, observing basic manners, being friendly and yet at the same time being authoritative and stern when I need to be!
“First and foremost, though, when you are talking about being a role model, you have to be the one showing people the right thing.”
Errol says his first real leadership role was as captain of the basketball team at Georgia University, US, to where he’d won a sports scholarship. “Captaincy wasn’t something I’d looked to do. I asked myself what made people vote for me and I can only think it was because I carried myself with a certain presence. I was quite studious, a ‘good student’. You have to be professional and talk to people with a certain authority so that when a real issue comes up you can have a thorough discourse.”
He’s never differentiated the way he teaches in terms of the care, attention and guidance he gives to any of his students, regardless if they are black, white, male or female.
“I’ve not been the direct reason for the success of any individual. Yet, for instance, I’ve seen many really positive results among my students with Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.
“One young female student who went to work for a drug rehabilitation organisation came back to ask me to give a motivational speech for a group of drug dependants she was working with. I’ve also seen a number of black students go into the police and other public services.”
A Somali student he taught for three years is studying for a criminology degree before joining the police. Another student, who studied applied science at college, also took a criminology degree and is now back at the college as a STEM facilitator - “It’s so rewarding seeing her back as an ex-student,” says Errol.
He cannot overplay the importance of good mentors for black students - in his case it was his basketball coaches in Hackney and Newham, who cajoled and encouraged him and many other black players who went through the same programme to go on to college, degrees and often professional basketball in the US - “things they would probably not have considered otherwise”.
“The profound thing now is that so many of us - around 85-90% of my former cohort at least - have since become leaders, mentors and coaches at various levels. Basketball helped us keep focused on our studies so that possible distractions like drugs and crime became irrelevant and unimportant.”
Some college staff often feel naturally more at ease if there are other staff members around with a similar background. “Ever since I’ve been at my college, the number of staff from minority ethnic backgrounds has been obvious - not only at teacher level but also as part of the leadership team. When I joined in 2011, the team had four non-white members, three of them Afro-Caribbean women. Our current principal is also Afro-Caribbean. You could call the college is a beacon in promoting equal opportunities.”
A lecturer of African origin at one northern college fully shares Errol’s views about acting as a role model for minority ethnic students. He has also happily worked there for several years and finds all his colleagues open-minded. He is, though, just a “bit perplexed” about the fact he has always been the only lecturer of African origin.
“I’m not sure what’s in place to encourage more from my ethnic group to join the staff; you tend to focus on your own department. But I hope over the next few years there will be more than just myself. It’s natural to look around for anyone else around like you. It’s nobody’s fault that it’s like this; every year we talk about equality of opportunity and diversity and my peers are all easy to work with; they are very welcoming and open-minded. And I’d have no idea where to start querying this; I don’t think it’s up to me to try to find out. I’m busy enough with my own students. But hopefully the fact I’m here and my students see me as a lecturer will inspire more to follow in my footsteps. I do my job to be as good an example as I can be to my students!”
Another lecturer, this time in the south, takes a more sceptical view. “A few years ago under previous management there was a surge of what I would say was ‘purging’. This seems a strong word but I remember no longer seeing many of my female minority ethnic colleagues; they were being made redundant under the guise of failing their classroom observations. This brought about poor morale for those from similar backgrounds.
“So I was happy when classroom observations were no longer graded but instead used as performance indicators to help improve teachers’ professional development - primarily what classroom observations should have been about originally.
“At that time senior management colleagues were disappearing via posts being deleted or merged. Now there is no significant black management. I feel equal opportunities for the best part are a tick-box exercise. We talk about it - equality and diversity - in our curriculums but in reality there is still a long way to go.
“What’s really important, though, is the need for learners to feel inspired that anything is possible; if some are already coming in disillusioned from disadvantaged backgrounds, we have a duty as teachers to encourage, inspire and enable them to attain their desired outcomes.”
Things are now improving, she says, with some great staff advocates proactive on this issue. “I’ve not let it impact me. My purpose is to teach and meet as many learners as I can on their journey; I’m in the right place. I don’t need to be in management, that’s not for me, I’ve been there, done that, and to be fair I can't say there have been great opportunities or encouragement, but I’ll always encourage my learners to be great at whatever they want to do and get empowered to become successful managers, leaders, academics and scholars …”
HR director Karen Sanders from Nottingham College sounds a more optimistic note. Her college comprises around 30% students and 20% staff from minority ethnic backgrounds. She says the college positively encourages anyone describing themselves as minority ethnic to apply for leadership roles via an internal management development programme.
“A diverse workforce leads to a much more creative organisation and gets better results. And we aim to achieve this by putting the best possible role models in place to reflect our vision and values.
“We take a whole college approach - it’s much more about organisational culture and creating an environment in which students feel they can thrive. When any staff member or student comes into college they have to be able to identify with people like them, no matter what their background is. Then learning tends to improve. Once they feel they belong, they really engage with the college.”
With just days remaining of this year’s Black History Month, let’s hope Covid-19 restrictions won’t slow the FE sector’s march towards a level playing field and fair and equal opportunities for all minority ethnic groups.