Hands up if you know what community cohesion means

18th January 2008 at 00:00
The famous recruitment poster of a finger-pointing Lord Kitchener saying "Your Country Needs YOU" was a rallying call that united Britons of all social classes behind the First World War effort.

Gordon Brown frets that citizens of every colour, creed and ethnicity are not so keen on the notion of "your country" and, even worse, that the great British project might be torn apart by clashes between groups, right under his Kitchener-like gaze.

So schools have been roped in with "a duty to promote community cohesion". From this September, Ofsted will examine how well they are doing this. New faith schools must also be able to "contribute to community cohesion".

But does anyone know what "community cohesion" is, still less how to deliver it in schools? The Government has its own definition: it is not just a shared sense of belonging, but also a common vision - the feeling that YOU are part of Your Country.

It is also "a society where diversity is valued and appreciated, in which similar life opportunities are available to all". Crucial, but not very useful for schools. They cannot be the sticking plaster for society's problems.

Diversity and opportunity are significant. Schools already have a duty to teach racial tolerance, and multiculturalism is part of the curriculum. But when it emerged after the Oldham riots in 2001 that many immigrant families were leading parallel lives, this was seen as inadequate.

Multiculturalism "has done little to promote any sense of commonality or help build bridges," says Ted Cantle, the Government's community cohesion tsar. Rather it allows separateness to coexist.

Whatever "community cohesion" is or isn't, it has a purpose: it should prevent the kind of racial tensions that resulted in the Oldham and later the Birmingham Lozelles riots in 2005, the alienation of British Muslims that followed 911, and youth tensions that have led to a spate of knife and gun crimes in inner cities. Social workers see another flashpoint emerging - the low-skilled versus Eastern Europeans willing to take on low-wage jobs that local young people reject. Community cohesion should prevent that, too.

It is a tall order for schools, even if they have a let-out: Ofsted will evaluate schools' work promoting community cohesion and will not attempt to measure the extent of cohesion in any particular community. Sighs of relief all round.

Even those who throw resources behind community cohesion don't know what works. Bolton tackled racism, ethnic segregation in schools, gangs and drugs through twinning schools, setting up youth councils and bringing together people from different neighbourhoods.

Bolton council also set up a harmony forum, race equality and interfaith councils, Bolton community and voluntary service, the Gateway project to help immigrants settle, and more. Bolton was praised in December for being "at the forefront of community cohesion" by the National Institute of Community Cohesion. (Yes, it exists!) Less than a week after this accolade Bolton suffered its third racial murder in four months.

Somalis, Filipinos, Pakistanis and others say there is less sense of community here than they experienced back home. There isn't much for them to latch on to if they want to "become" British.

Teachers in predominantly-white market towns in Kent and Surrey say the sense of community is disappearing, and not just because of immigration. People remain in their homes and switch on the telly.

Community spirit is eroded by transience, divorce, commuting to London, supermarkets killing local shops, pulling down pubs to build flats, the closure of local libraries, the list goes on.

First build your community, and not just in schools. The glue can only be equality in housing, jobs, schooling and opportunity for all groups. That's the hardest part. Only with that glue can "Your Country" really mean something to all regardless of origin.

Yojana Sharma, Journalist and international affairs specialist.

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