Wow… what a year on so many levels!
When we say we are on a journey when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work, it’s never been truer than this year, for me.
4th January 2021, day one as the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at MK College Group in some ways it feels like yesterday, and in most other ways, feels like a lifetime ago (in a good way!).
Imagine walking into a new role with no roadmap, into a new sector bustling with acronyms that you don’t know…
Imagine walking into a new role with no roadmap, into a new sector bustling with acronyms that you don’t know, working with people that you don’t yet know, doing roles that are unfamiliar. In addition, going from a ‘coal-face’ role to a ‘behind the scenes’ role… from in-person to remote and virtual… in the middle of a national lockdown during a pandemic. ‘Deer in headlights’ could have been my mantra, however…
What I was 100% confident in was that the work mattered, and I mean really mattered AND the challenges remain the same. Recognising that the moral purpose has existed for decades, amplified further by international events recently, yet the pace of change still feels, looks, and in reality, a million miles from where it should or could be, was a vital part of the thinking. It could also be argued that cultural change is a monumental beast that shifts direction slowly and sometimes begrudgingly, so it’s no surprise that we are not where we want to be.
So how do I, as a novice (we are all novices, the lack of meaningful change is the proof), do I navigate this path that so many have tread?
‘It’s about hearts and minds’
Call me naïve but I still feel the majority of people want to do the right thing. I am basing this solely on the thousands of interactions I have had over a long period of time… I have no more evidence than that, and for me, that’ll do.
So, this posed two initial questions:
1. Do we have a shared understanding of ‘what the right thing’ is?
2. What is stopping ‘us’ doing that ‘right thing’?
‘Knowing me, Knowing you’
Relationships are so important to success of any piece of work. Quite often, we see the sole reliance on bringing in external expertise to solve an internal problem. There is so much merit in doing this, experts are crucial to the process BUT they shouldn’t be seen as the ‘silver bullet’. To have meaningful dialogue with any external expert you really need to understand who you are and what matters to you. This was the first phase of the work I did in 2021 and it comprised of two key strands:
1. Who are we? Evidence comes in many shapes and forms… and then we have the question on what we value as evidence. Data is a key component that helps identify base lines and change, but data by itself is not the answer. Having said that, ‘the numbers’ are quite often seen as the language of decision makers, so it must be considered and used to describe the narrative. It can often tell us the ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’, and the ‘what’ of any situation… rarely does it tell you the ‘how’. Unearthing the story behind the data is so important and that’s where we need to have the conversation about what we value. Evidence is not just data, it’s also about the lived experience, the stories and the feeling that exists in the organisation. Agreeing to a new value criteria is important and in the world of equality, diversity and inclusion, it’s vital.
2. What matters to me? Relationships. The education sector is a very ‘people’ rich environment and building positive and honest relationships is key to understanding who we are and what matters. There are a thousand and one different priorities driving an organisation made up of over a thousand employees and multiple thousands of learners. Quite often. Very often, these priorities can seem to be at conflict with each other and often can be seen as the reason why ‘not to do something’ rather the reason ‘to do something’. To shift this mindset you really have to understand people, know their challenges and priorities and support the process of reframing the picture we all see. The first six months, almost in entirety, was devoted to building this shared understanding of what we see and what we value. During this time, I had over 450 meetings with new contacts, internally and externally, who all in some way have a stake in ‘doing the right thing’. I’ll be honest, some I only met once, however, many I have continued to build a stronger relationship with. There is no judgement attached to that comment, sometimes it’s just not the right time to grow every connection into a relationship. The important aspect is to grow a critical mass of support and allies of honest relationships.
Just one of the amazing people I’ve had the privilege meeting. This was photo was taken at a multi-faith event remembering all those that had been affected by the pandemic and acknowledging the inspirational work done by our communities.
If you want to know who these people are… search #SparklyBridgeBuilders.
Here are some of the activities and commitments during the first half of 2021…
Signatory to the Race At Work Charter where we committed to publishing our ethnicity pay gap and data.
One of the initial outcomes of becoming a signatory was to appoint a non-executive sponsor on our board of Governors, essentially my voice and support at board level. We meet on a regular basis to discuss how we can make the work we are doing more impactful and how to garner support of our executive and non-executive teams.
The #FEVoices series had its first outing consisting of three live sessions which looked to deconstruct racism from three distinct perspectives. ‘The Lived experience’, ‘Looking in’, and ‘The reformers’ gave a platform to nearly twenty voices from learners, educators, community leaders, industry partners and decision makers who all looked at the current picture within the FE sector. This project was part funded by the Education & Training Foundation and hosted by MK College Group.
‘What we say and how we say it matters’
The Inclusive Language Guide is a collaborative, live project which aimed at creating the foundations of authentic and honest conversations. The guide, is just that, a guide, not a means to control how we communicate but a means to improve how we engage in a positive and informed basis. One of the unexpected gifts from this project has been that the guide itself has led to meaningful and open conversations with colleagues and learners… I’m not sure if that would have happened so easily without it.
If you would like your own copy of the guide, please get in touch.
‘What we say AND what we do, defines us’
The back end of 2021 was a time that I started to unbutton my cuffs and roll up those sleeves. Although I had an internal calendar for progress, there was no hard times and dates for when priorities needed to emerge to develop the bones of any strategy. I gave myself that time to do ‘the work’ in a way that I felt best suits my organisation. I know that is quite a privileged position to be in where there is always a pressure of measuring progress, seeing results and essentially, showing your worth. If you understand this is about people, that many strategies haven’t historically worked AND that you have a desire to have sustainable impact and change, then patience is a critical component.
‘Put your money where your mouth is’
Budgets alone are not the solution to creating more inclusive environments, HOWEVER, without a budget an organisation essentially is tying your hands, legs, blindfolding, gagging, and putting fluffy ear muffs on any chance of meaningful work to be done across the organisation. More importantly it raises the profile of the work. How? Budgets are a key component of accountability, risk and priority setting. The more ‘meaningful’ the budget, the more the work is prioritised. Starting without an explicit budget for this work has been challenging but also liberating. It has enabled me to focus on the relationships that control budgets and find out how they are utilised. Embedding good practice is essential as the responsibility needs to be shared for it to be sustainable and avoid the SPoF (Single Points of Failure). Explicit budgets are needed and now we have this and it we will look at how this is developed as a priority. It’s important to note, since starting, I haven’t been denied any funds and that in itself, speaks volumes.
‘Ambition is important’
The new MK College Group Strategic Plan was launched in July 2021 and set out six strands to develop over the next five years. It’s been great working on the explicit fifth strand ‘Promote and live fairness, equality, diversity and inclusion’ which underpins the approach we want to take. However, the most exciting aspect has been working with the senior teams on how we can embed EDI throughout the strategy. There is a lot of learning and support needed to get us to the point where we have a coherent approach and a shared understanding on what the ‘right thing to do’ is. Watch this space!
An EDI perspective of our new Strategic Plan on #FEVoices
‘Many voices make a chorus’
One of my initial hopes was that I would be in a position to help to create employee networks. I didn’t think it would be year one but as I said earlier, I have no hard dates for progress, things need to happen when it is right to do so. Normally, networks grow organically from small groups of people that share a particular interest. Using the ‘IVF’ approach, sometimes, this process needs support to get off the ground. The model we have developed is tiered with support structures in this initial phase. It was important that internal support at the very top was evident; A senior leader is sponsoring each network and coaching each Chair. External experience, expertise, and support is important; we have network Chairs from across the country who are mentoring each Chair. Each Chair is passionate about making a difference and their roles will grow and develop as we move forward. There are currently five networks that are at various stages of ‘birth’; Cultural Diversity, Disability, LGBTQ, Women’s, and Men’s. Each of these will start to feed into the decision-making process of the group as they start to develop their priorities.
‘Nudging into better behaviours’
#FEVoices had its second outing which aimed to showcase good EDI practice from different perspectives. Four episodes over four weeks from four different FE providers. This series exemplified the mantra, ‘start where you can and where you know’, and covered preventing attainment gaps, student led approaches to curriculum development, ‘usualising’ inclusive behaviours, and strategic approaches to organisational EDI.
‘Sharing is caring… and understanding is valuing’
Over the past few years, MK College Prison Services has crafted an E&D Calendar using the artwork produced by our learners across 19 different prison locations. This year we brought that group wide and hopes to open our eyes to the richness of cultures that we live in. It aims to celebrate and raise awareness of key dates that are important to the people we live, work, and learn with. If you would like a digital copy, please do reach out.
‘So where next?’
Is there a plan? Of course there’s always a plan and I’ll be sharing my vision of 2022 soon!
In the meantime, here are a few links to articles published in 2021…
EDI no longer an abstract concern, we’re tackling it in the real world | Association of Colleges (aoc.co.uk)
Diversity in FE: How to make aspirations a reality | Tes Magazine
Colleges publish ethnicity pay data to increase diversity (feweek.co.uk)
Arv Kaushal MCCT
Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Milton Keynes College
Published • January 2022
When we say we are on a journey when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) ‘work’, it’s never been truer than this year, for me. 4th January, day one as the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Milton Keynes College Group in some ways it feels like yesterday, and in most other ways, feels like a lifetime ago (in a good way!).