Promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in further education

Newsletter articles

11 Mar 2015

Employment Studies Issue 21

Rosa Marvell, IES Research Officer

Rosa MarvellBackground

As public sector bodies, all colleges and training providers are required to ensure that students receive equitable provision of and access to services. In addition, under the public sector equality duty, they are also required to consciously consider: eliminating discrimination, harassment and violence; advancing equality of opportunity; and fostering good relationships by tackling prejudice and promoting understanding1.

However, in a time when further education (FE) faces public funding cuts, there are challenges for ventures aimed at expanding the sector’s capacity to meet this duty. Nevertheless, the continued importance of this duty is underlined by the persistent marginalisation of certain groups. For example: apprenticeship gender segregation;2 underrepresentation of ethnic minority groups3 or learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities in apprenticeships;4 or stigmatisation around mental health.

The Skills Funding Agency and former Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) responded from 2009 onwards by co-funding annual Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) grants5, with an emphasis on innovation, sustainability and partnership working. Small grants of up to £5,000 and larger grants of up to £25,000 were offered, open to bids from organisations in England providing FE and training as a primary function, and to National Careers Service prime providers. Primarily, they were to enhance the capacity of the sector to meet the equality duty (and not fund the direct delivery of education and training) concerning age, disability, gender, transgender identities, pregnancy and maternity, ethnicity, religion or belief, and sexual orientation6.

IES research

In 2014, IES was commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to evaluate three rounds of these grants (2010-2013). This covered 87 projects delivered by a diverse range of providers, mostly general FE colleges but also charities, offender learning and skills providers, workplace learning providers, and membership organisations. The evaluation included a review of nearly 400 associated documents (prospectuses, applications, case studies, interim and final reports, and associated documentation), an online survey of lead staff and qualitative interviews with sector stakeholders and project leads. The objectives were to:

  • assess value for money, sustainability, innovation, long-term impacts and ‘reach’ amongst projects;
  • identify common success factors and risk indicators;
  • identify outcomes and outputs for wider dissemination; and
  • develop recommendations for the management of future similar funding.

An important source of funding

We found that this funding was crucial for many providers, especially in a financial climate where some may be tempted to cut back on EDI as an organisational or strategic priority. Interviews with project leads highlighted that without funding, the scope of projects would have been severely limited, if they took place at all. Additionally, in line with the emphasis on innovation, activities were funded which may not have otherwise been supported in the current economic climate, leading some organisations to break new ground. Not all approaches were successful, but project leads and stakeholders noted the importance of being able to trial and test new approaches.

One of the strongest messages was the grants’ real value for ‘newer’ equality strands previously neglected in FE, for example sexual orientation or religion and belief. They were afforded greater profile and status, so providers struggling to see the pertinence of these themes to their work were supplied with evidence of their relevance in the sector.

Outcomes and impacts of the grants

Although a range of outcomes and impacts were reported, the most common by far was increased awareness or understanding of EDI, followed by stronger partnerships and a better grounding of EDI in delivery. This was not limited to organisational-level learning: it was additionally reported that FE learners had higher confidence, self-esteem and aspirations as a result of projects. Of note, our documentary analysis (comparing applications to final reports) illustrated that much ‘harder’ outcomes such as training or employment were originally anticipated. It was unclear exactly why this had not been achieved, but some interviewees stated that engaging particularly hard-to-reach groups was more resource intensive than anticipated, which may be part of the explanation for this.

Nevertheless, stakeholders and project leads frequently emphasised the intrinsic value in improving understanding, awareness and attitudes towards EDI, which cannot be quantified as this implies a long-lasting change to the way people think and act.

Key recommendations

Although it had largely worked well, the monitoring and reporting system of the grants was heavily dependent on accurate self-reporting. In place of 1-10 scales, more open questions would encourage projects to better explain how far they had progressed and to provide evidence. A similar emphasis on participants’ progression relative to their starting points would additionally enhance dissemination activities. Further, where project reports were of poor quality, additional support from the managing agent would encourage accountability amongst projects in terms of stated deliverables.

Secondly, although the emphasis on demonstrating innovation did bring value to the sector, we recommended that the Agency should consider giving more or equal emphasis to the need to embed, sustain and extend good practice across the sector as a whole. It was felt that this change in emphasis was likely to deliver greater value for money and improved equality outcomes in the long term, with indicative evidence present in our evaluation.

Sustaining, embedding and extending good practice

A number of projects were successfully integrated within a wider organisational infrastructure, protected from volatile changes such as staff turnover and the end of project funding. This took a variety of forms: changes to curriculum design, content or delivery, embedding EDI in staff training and action plans, or changes in governance structure such as learner representation on senior management teams and steering groups.

Many projects effectively sustained their impact, most commonly in the form of outputs. For example, toolkits with links to expert advice needed just minor alterations to remain current. Other initiatives created social enterprises which continued to generate income after the end of project funding. Furthermore, partnership working was another core aspect of sustainability, with existing networks strengthened and new partnerships – trialled through the grants – going on to work together in future ventures.

However, whilst it was possible to identify some examples of projects successfully extending good practice and learning to other providers in the sector (although this was often not the original aim of projects), most could not demonstrate this. Despite growing emphasis on disseminating good practice in prospectuses, projects appeared to perceive ‘innovative’ or ‘sustainable’ projects to be a higher priority to the Agency, skewing the focus of the grants. Expanding successful equality work and sharing lessons learned with other providers will better improve the capacity of the sector to meet its obligations under the Equality Act.

Impact on policy

The Equality Challenge Unit took over as managing agent of the most recent round of grants (2014-2015), now named the Equality and Diversity Good Practice Fund. In light of our recommendations, the overriding emphasis of the new fund is on the embedding, sustaining and spreading of good practice in supporting learners to participate and achieve in FE, and developing the capacity of the sector to meet the public sector equality duty.

This research was published as Marangozov R, Marvell R, Miller L, Newton B, Fletcher L (2014) Evaluation of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Grants, Institute for Employment Studies. The full research report (including good practice case studies) and infographic are available from the IES website:


  1. See
  2. Newton, B and Williams J (2013) Underrepresentation by gender and race in Apprenticeships: Research Summary, UnionLearn.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Little, P (2012) Creating an inclusive Apprenticeship Offer, Apprenticeship Unit.
  5. Also known as Equality and Diversity Partnership Funds.
  6. Marriage and civil partnerships, included in the Equality Act 2010, are not part of the public sector equality duty.