Staff need better training in battle against discrimination

A UKFEchat debate on equality and diversity has called for a more proactive approach in FE. 

The FE and skills sector welcomes everyone. We are proud of our dedication to equality and diversity and in most areas, rightly so. Many people who come through our doors haven't had an altogether positive experience of education in the past and it's our duty to put that right.

Some students are reluctant to engage in education because of a lack of value placed on learning by those closest to them, while others build barriers through a lack of confidence in their own ability to improve. But how does it feel when the thing that's restricting you from entering an environment that could offer a route to a better future, isn't concern about what you can or can't do, but worries about the response to fundamental facets of who you are?

It's a given that racist language is unacceptable in any context, as is the use of discriminatory language relating to people with learning difficulties or disabilities. However, homophobic terms can still occasionally be heard in every area of the education sector, without sufficient reproach or consequence.

The UKFEchat group recently discussed issues of equality and diversity with regard to sexuality and gender, asking if, as educators, we are doing enough to celebrate the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities in our workplaces.

Though there are examples of excellent practice throughout the sector it was agreed that a more proactive approach to LGBT education of the workforce would be of great benefit.

Maria Wilkinson, curriculum director at Aylesbury College, said: "We have a moral duty to challenge negative views of LGBT people. Those views are not just limited to students. There's a fundamental gap in continuing professional development (CPD) to change the culture of some educators with outdated or prejudicial views of sexuality and gender roles. We should all feel empowered to challenge discrimination - no matter what it is or who is discriminating."

Homophobic incidents in colleges and the use of offensive language in relation to LGBT people are thankfully rare. However, the idea that there is ambiguity surrounding what counts as acceptable vocabulary is still an area of concern. The confusion lies between the language and the intended meaning with one word at the centre - gay.

"That's so gay." Though the intended sentiment may not be homophobic, it's the negative implication that is damaging; the word 'gay' in place of an insult. Such dialogue is not a promotion of equality and diversity no matter how inoffensive the speaker believes they are being.

The only way to eradicate the misuse of the word 'gay', or indeed any prejudicial language, is by every member of staff uniting to challenge it, whenever it is used. This makes it clear that there is no room for interpretation.

Zero tolerance, twinned with education, is the most effective method to overcome discrimination, but to truly embed diversity we must celebrate it. It must be more than a box-ticking exercise.

Are our teaching resources diverse in their representation? Are there social and support environments for learners and staff who identify as LGBT? Are we as education professionals sufficiently equipped with behaviour management techniques to confront and combat homophobic bullying?

Kay Sidebottom, a higher education teacher at Barnsley College, said: "Asking difficult questions about our curricula and our organisations is vital, otherwise our attempts will always be superficial rather than truly inclusive. We need to connect with the identities of the individuals within our classrooms, but also consider the hidden and absent aspects of identity, which may not be represented: Kay said that the key to improved equality and diversity is a more robust programme of CPD.

"Becoming culturally self-aware, developing respect for difference and valuing diversity; these skills are essential for our students and for us," she said.

Sarah Simons is a teacher and writer. Sarah runs UKFEchat, an online discussion forum for people interested in FE. The UKFEchat community meets on Twitter each Thursday at 9pm, to join use #ukfechat in your tweet.


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