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Intolerant and in conversation

Candid participants ensured a lively start to a millennial series of college debates, brainchild of Lewisham College's principal Ruth Silver. Justina Hart

reports INTOLERANCE is considered a virtue by many young people, the first in a groundbreaking series of FE college discussions has found.

Half of those students from three London colleges who took part in a major discussion entitled "Are we a tolerant society?" described themselves as fundamentally intolerant. Equating tolerance with weakness, conformity and even mendaciousness, they argued that intolerance meant "standing up for yourself" and "being yourself".

In a second debate earlier this year on sexuality, staff were also shocked by reactions. They were particularly surprised that some students felt able to declare "I'm homophobic" in an open forum. But there was a contradiction between this and the attitude revealed in the post-discussion bulletin, which read: "just about anyone who spoke said that one of their best friends was gay". The report pointed out that the same group of predominantly non-white students would have been appalled had any white person dared to say so casually, "I'm racist".

These views have emerged from the first two discussions in a proposed series of student debates called "College Conversations". Over a two-year period it is hoped that the conversations will ripple out from colleges near the site of the Millennium Dome across the country.

Each of the three colleges which has taken part - Lewisham, Woolwich and Tower Hamlets - is seeking two new college partners for fresh discussions. These colleges will, in turn, search for partners.

The discussions include 10 or so students from each college and are chaired by an independent facilitator. Students are encouraged to choose the themes and the venue. Only a few staff have been present to organise and document the proceedings.

The brainchild of Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, College Conversations was established to give FE students the opportunity to meet and discuss some of the difficult issues which are dominating the UK's social agenda. These include social justice, education and training, drugs, health, homelessness and sexuality.

Silver chose the word "conversation" because she believes that this word suits FE (which she terms "the people's sector) better than "debate". She says:

"debates have formal, constrained patterns that would intimidate our students."

The conversations are not designed to court controversy, but to allow students the chance collectively to "build a philosophy" for the future. "Students think the future's out there and they're just walking towards it, but actually they have a choice," says Silver.

Silver's vision has been fermenting for a long time. When plans for the Millennium Dome were first mooted, she realised that Lewisham's position as the college closest to the meridian line, meant it was ideally placed to initiate a major project. She remembered that Herbert Morrison, the grandfather of then Dome supremo Peter Mandelson, had masterminded the Festival of Britain and been MP for Lewisham.

She decided it would be "wonderful" if, in the future, "Mr Blair could meet people from the people's sector in the Dome".

She approached Mandelson who advised her to talk to Maggie Semple, in charge of education for the Dome. Silver then gained the support of Len Duvall, leader of Greenwich Council, and Sir Mike Heron, who helped secure some funding from the Post Office for the first two debates.

The long-term umbrella proposal, for which Silver is seeking funding, she called "The Polder Project". On a visit to Holland in 1987 Silver had witnessed the preparations of "polders", the reclamation of land which would not be habitable for at least 50 years. She was astonished and inspired by a nation that was preparing itself for generations not yet born.

Silver sees the Dome as an English polder. In December 2000, after two years of conversations, she hopes that FE students will have formulated what they want to say about themselves and their future.

The plan is that they will then invite the Prime Minister to the Dome to hear their views. This young adults' parliament, which she describes as a "colloquium on government", could eventually be instituted as an annual event. "I want something big and smashing for Polder," says Silver, "but it begins with conversations - something really simple".

Lewisham students Tola Sarumi, 17, who hopes to be a human rights lawyer, and her friend, Emmanuel Emenalom, 19, who wants to be an engineer, volunteered to take part in both debates.

They describe themselves as "very opinionated" and were motivated by the idea of a participating in a "healthy debate", although Emmanuel jokes he was disappointed that the process was more "knights at the round table" than "Jerry Springer".

They have both welcomed the chance to make personal views public.

Tola says she feels undermined because the national media does not represent young black people's opinions, but rather those of a white, middle-age, middle-class, male elite. She reads all the newspapers she can lay her hands on, however, because "knowledge is power".

Silver says her grand vision has been encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by students like Tola and Emmanuel during the two initial conversations.

She says: "The debate is very advanced. It might not be polysyllabic, but I have seen the most amazing understanding from these young men and women."

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