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Students ‘at risk of gang attacks’ after mergers

Learners travelling to new sites could fall victim to ‘postcode wars’ , NUS warns

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Merging colleges through the area reviews process could put learners at risk of gang-related violence, the NUS students’ union has warned.

Shakira Martin, the union’s vice-president for further education, told TES that forcing students to travel outside their local area to access FE provision – particularly in London – could put them in danger, and lead to many dropping out of education.

Experts with an understanding of the gang “postcode wars” should be consulted in the area reviews to protect learners, she added.

Ms Martin’s issued her warning as the NUS today launches its “FEunplugged” campaign, urging students to voice their concerns over the impact the government’s area reviews could have on them.

The union also argued that the area reviews – established to reform the sector with the aim of resulting in “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers” – could leave many learners unable to afford the travel costs because they will face a longer journey to attend college (see box, right).

“Particularly in London, there is a culture of gang violence,” Ms Martin said. “I would not feel confident to send a young boy or girl who is part of a postcode war somewhere else. They need to feel safe behind the college gates.

“People need to consider that; the safety of students is not something that they have been considering. And hate crime is also rising; young people, our young people in colleges, are dying, and they need to consider that. With area reviews, it is forcing students to move.

“Local communities, youth centres, community projects that specialise in working with young people and understand gang culture really should be involved. People need to understand the challenges and dangers their students face outside the college gates.”

‘No-go areas’ for students

Ms Martin’s concerns were echoed by the St Giles Trust, a charity that specialises in the support of ex-offenders and disadvantaged people. A spokeswoman said that its caseworkers had already experienced situations where their clients had been unable to attend college due to the risk of them coming into contact with former gang associates.

“It would be helpful if colleges affected by gangs and youth offending consulted frontline organisations who are working to address these issues,” she added. “Not only will it help disadvantaged young people, it will also help to prevent colleges potentially facing future gang-related problems.”

The first two of the London area reviews, focused on provision in the west and centre of the city, are due to get under way in March, affecting 17 FE colleges and six sixth-form colleges. Almost 200 gangs are currently believed to be operating across the capital. Collectively, they are responsible for a fifth of all violent crime in the capital and 40 per cent of London shootings.

However, college leaders refused to be drawn on whether the area reviews should specifically consider gang issues, or involve outside agencies such as the Metropolitan Police.

Carole Kitching, principal of Lewisham Southwark College, said that colleges were aware of the travel issues affecting their students. “We have student support in place for any learners who may have concerns about coming to study with us.

“Colleges such as ours work very closely with the police on a day-to-day basis to ensure the safety of our students and, therefore, having the Met Police in the area reviews doesn’t feel necessary,” she added.

Gerry McDonald, principal of Tower Hamlets College, said that all colleges would have statutory safeguarding policies, with designated members of staff to help protect vulnerable young people. “Post-mergers, colleges will remain committed to promoting and protecting the safety and wellbeing of their students and liaising with the appropriate local agencies,” he added.

The NUS campaign will ask students’ unions to identify the various factors that allow young people to attend college. Unions will then be encouraged to lobby politicians, local authorities and providers during the area review process.

Transport, Ms Martin said, had already been identified as one of students’ main concerns. A survey by NUS in November revealed that more than half of students could not always afford their travel costs – even before the expected wave of college mergers. Other issues include support for learners with disabilities, as well as for those with parenting and caring responsibilities, Ms Martin added.

“We need a campaign now because we need people and communities to know what is going on and know about the changes that will be made to their colleges and the education of their children. Students need to be at the heart of this.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) said that the area reviews would take account of the impact of reforms on learners, and roundtables being convened by the NUS would “ensure the student voice forms a part of the review process”. Steering groups could take advice from “relevant authorities”, she added.

This is an article from the 29 January edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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