The Prevent agenda divides opinion. Is it a way to keep young people safe or a way to control and pry into people’s private lives? It requires schools, colleges and universities to report any concerns they have that young people are being targeted by extremists of whatever type both at home and abroad. For further education and sixth-form colleges, it also requires thorough risk assessments of events involving outside speakers, comprehensive staff training and robust IT policies. Compliance with the agenda will be monitored by Ofsted.
To date the discussion surrounding Prevent has focused on whether this new agenda threatens freedom of speech or is an extension of the safeguarding duties that require educational institutions to keep young people out of danger. For colleges, the requirement has very much been viewed as the latter, preventing – as the name suggests – students from being drawn in by extremist rhetoric and getting involved in activities that could put them or others at risk. Colleges take this duty extremely seriously. They risk assess events and speakers, provide staff with safeguarding training and have policies on acceptable use of IT for both staff and students. All these elements are already in place to support the safety and well-being of all those on the college site. Prevent is another facet of this as reflected by the fact that Ofsted monitors it as part of personal development, behaviour and welfare under the new inspection framework.
Another strand of the agenda is that schools and colleges are also required to actively promote British values to encourage community cohesion. In today’s multicultural society, this has caused a great deal of discussion in staffrooms up and down the country. What are British values? How do we teach them? But, ultimately it is recognised that the focus is on the importance of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, respect and tolerance. These are values which surely we would hope unite all cultures and backgrounds throughout the UK. Moreover, it offers the opportunity for discussion of these values – the narrative and counter-narrative – in a safe environment.
However, at the same time, against this backdrop there is a potential threat to community cohesion playing out in colleges across the country, which is receiving far less attention. Funding for mandated courses for English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol), which is targeted at those on Jobseekers’ Allowance, has been cut by £45 million. Esol courses offer a way into further education, training and employment for those who do not have a strong working knowledge of English. This means that many people who come into the country will be prevented from integrating into British life more fully because they cannot get into employment and offer their vital skills to the economy.
Having taught Esol, I know first-hand how much the opportunity to learn English, and engage in and contribute to society with this knowledge, is valued. At a time when community cohesion and understanding is so crucial that it needs to be reinforced in schools and colleges up and down the land, it seems ironic that an opportunity to engage people in their community through the ability to communicate successfully is being eroded. Moreover, it is in direct contrast with the government’s stance, promoted by David Cameron himself, just a day before the cuts were announced to tackle extremist ideology and the "failures of integration".
Encouraging community cohesion and promoting British values on one hand, but taking away the funding for a crucial part of supporting this agenda on the other seems counter intuitive. Furthermore, at a time when it is deemed vital that all those living in the UK embrace "Britishness" and turn away from promoting extremist views and opinions, it seems odd that the government wants to alienate those who have newly arrived in the country and make it more difficult for them to fully engage in our democracy. Colleges, however, will strive to continue to provide this language education despite the funding cut. Alienation and isolation lead to vulnerability, the very thing colleges are being asked to prevent.
This blog was written by Catherine Sezen, policy manager for 14-19 and curriculum at the Association of Colleges