Colleges face up to extremists

30th November 2007 at 00:00

Principals are asked to draw up safety plans as staff seek advice on recognising terror groups. Joseph Lee reports. Colleges are being asked to help draw up plans to combat violent extremism and improve relations between people of different races and religious backgrounds.

With some suspects in recent terror cases having studied in FE, ministers want principals to look at new ways of ensuring campuses are safe and welcoming to all, at the same time as not allowing fanaticism to spread.

A document setting out initial proposals is due in the new year.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills heard opinions from FE representatives at a seminar at the Association of Colleges' conference in Birmingham.

A number of terrorists involved in the July 7, 2005, London bombings, which killed 56 people, and the failed bomb later that month were former FE students.

Paul Head, principal of the College of North East London, said: "We have people in our community who would go out and blow themselves and other people up. Lots of these people were FE students in FE institutions. What do we do to manage that risk? Is there anybody in my institution doing that now?"

He also said that the causes of conflict between groups on campus could be unexpected - his college having faced a breakdown of relations between Turkish Muslim and African students.

This conflict turned out to have nothing to do with religion, and simply reflected that social groups were often divided along ethnic lines.

The college set up a joint student group to discuss the tensions, which helped defuse the situation.

Mr Head said colleges could become the safest place in students' lives. After introducing random checks, he says his own institution was now a haven from the knives and guns that were common in some students' local communities.

FE staff called for more advice about how to recognise extremist groups, which sometimes operate behind front organisations, but warned that measures would be counterproductive if they focused solely on Islamic extremism.

Alison Birkinshaw, principal of Nelson and Colne College in Lancashire, said: "We have had three incidents recently, all cases of explosives in our area. All were white males. Sometimes the media is irresponsible about the way it reports issues to do with faith and extremism. You go into college the next day and you can see our Muslim students are terribly affected by it."

Dr Birkinshaw, chair of a steering group set up to improve the reputation of FE, said some policies in schools, such as the promotion of faith schools, were creating segregated environments that made colleges' work harder.

"Colleges are quite often beacons of tolerance and diversity," she said. "But Government policy can threaten the very cohesion they have built."

Others said it was important to form alliances with Islamic organisations that reject violence, in order to confront the theological arguments of extremists head-on. They also said it was important to recognise that Islam is composed of many different traditions.

Susan Pember, director of the further education and learning and skills performance group at DIUS, said the consultation would focus on five areas.

The Government wanted to ensure that colleges could build shared values between different communities, break down social segregation, ensure student safety and deal with violent extremism.

Leading article, page 4.

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