Principals believe guns and knives are a more pressing concern than religious extremism
Ministers have been told to mind their language on the subject of Muslim extremism in colleges. They have also been advised to tackle a problem that colleges see as a much bigger concern: gang violence.
This is the advice from Lynne Sedgmore, government adviser and former chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, who was asked to collate the views of principals about draft guidance on how to bring ethnic and religious groups together to prevent violent extremism.
After interviewing 40 principals, she said there was a view that the focus on the Muslim community was a distraction from tackling the everyday dangers recognised by college principals. Ms Sedgmore said: "It's about guns and knives. Gang warfare is the biggest of these issues that are facing our colleges. In large urban colleges, that's the day-to-day preoccupation."
Her comments follow a conference on community cohesion organised last week by the Niace, the adult education body, when concerns were raised that Muslims would feel threatened by the proposed guidance from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. It says that colleges should be vigilant about literature circulating among students which might encourage violence, or invited speakers who appear sympathetic to terrorism.
Abdul Bari, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said there was a danger of spreading a "false narrative" of Muslims as people who are susceptible to being recruited by organisations committed to violence in the name of their religion. "The guidelines for further and higher education reflect this narrative, but many in our community do not recognise it," he said.
A United Nations report published earlier this month claimed that one in eight under-18s in the UK had carried a knife or gun in the past year. So far this year, 31 children have been stabbed to death with knives.
At the College of North East London, in Tottenham, staff said violent crime was kept off campus but was sometimes very close by. A 17-year-old girl was shot dead in a nearby pub last year.
Howard Jeffrey, director of learning support at the college, said: "Gang culture is about people coming together because they are afraid. But if you're doing well in your college and your studies, you can have a life outside a gang."
Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, said: "It's critically important that we get this right. It's by no means easy. Since we first launched the guidance in universities, we have genuinely listened and we have revised our approach.
"Already, I think the sector has demonstrated considerable leadership in responding swiftly but sensitively to real concerns. Colleges are working with their communities rather than against them."
Leading article, page 4.