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The cost of values

Omar is 17. He's watched a lot of inflammatory stuff on the internet recently and he's become angry about what he sees as the oppression of Islam by Western countries. Maybe he will never get to the stage of doing something violent or murderous to try to right the perceived wrongs his faith has suffered. Then again, maybe he will.

But have no fear. Omar is at college and his mild-mannered tutor Mr Jones has been charged with inculcating him with FBV, or Fundamental British Values. Omar has been won over by Mr Jones' scintillating sessions promoting fair play, warm beer (particularly effective with Muslims, this one) and bobbies on bicycles two-by-two.

OK, so it's a caricature. But is it so far from the truth about what's supposed to happen from the start of the new academic year when FE colleges will be required by the government to actively promote FBV among their students? Because, sadly, as schools already engaged in treading this prickly path are finding out, it is one fraught with difficulties.

To start with - as has been much discussed recently - how do we determine what British values are? Jonathan Dimbleby had a go at defining them on Radio 4 the other day, coming up with democracy, rule of law and individual liberty. But while many UK citizens would undoubtedly sign up for all three, so would people in dozens of countries across the world. In Britain we might distinguish ourselves from "les autres" with our established church and much-respected constitutional monarchy. But how am I, British to the core but a lifelong atheist and republican, meant to convincingly pass on their merits to others?

Second, and perhaps more problematic, is the issue of how such ill-defined principles are to be presented to the punters - that sceptical and often uninterested target group in their mid-to-late teens? If they were 6 rather than 16, we might have a chance. Over the years most primary schools have done a good job of promoting tolerance and respect for others via a carefully considered mix of example and gentle persuasion.

But teenagers come with opinions and prejudices pre-formed. They are also notoriously rebellious and unlikely to be impressed by anything that smacks of didacticism from the sad old crew of losers otherwise known as their teachers. At best you might, via discussion and careful presentation, get them to consider philosophies other than their own. But even that requires great patience and skill to implement, as liberal and general studies teachers found in the 1970s and 1980s when they embarked on a mission to "civilise" vocational students from Meat One and Plumbing Two.

Worse than that - worse than failure, I mean - is that the whole enterprise could end up being counterproductive. Many moderate Muslims are already rightly suspicious of what they see as interference in, and condescension towards, things they consider "theirs". And the danger is that we will end up pushing the waverers more firmly into the fanatical mindset of the jihadis rather than prising them away.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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