Agreement in principle

16th October 2015 at 00:00

Every educator has a duty to provide a safe environment in which to support students towards educational achievement. If we suspect a student is being abused, exploited or otherwise harmed, safeguarding processes and cross-agency partnerships snap into place to ensure they are protected.

If we focus on those same principles with regard to students who may be vulnerable to extremism, the Prevent duty with which further education colleges are now legally obliged to comply becomes much less controversial: it is our job to keep students safe and it is appropriate that Ofsted should check that we are doing it well.

Government guidance defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs...[and] calls for the death of members of our armed forces”.

Such values are critically important at a time when acts of terrorism seem increasingly unpredictable and recruitment into terrorist organisations is ever more prevalent. But adding the word “British” to a set of solid ideals is divisive. It invites resistance to the promotion of wholly positive principles.

There are also questions about whether the idea of British values marginalises communities: there was a depressing irony in Theresa May’s recent support of multicultural community cohesion, just as budgets for Esol (English for speakers of other languages) courses were being slashed. In the light of such contradictory government communication, “British values” could have a whiff of propaganda.

And then there are the values themselves: the room they leave for misinterpretation, the consequences of misplaced suspicion and the grey area where students identified as vulnerable to radicalisation are also potential criminal suspects.

However, it is possible to uphold your Prevent obligations without getting caught up in the Britishness debate. There is a clear understanding in the Prevent training that the goal is not about shutting down cultural, societal and political discussion, or quashing the rebellious attitudes of young people for whom FE may be the first space where philosophical argument is encouraged. The values can be a platform to highlight and explore a range of opinions in a safe environment that challenges extremist views.

A number of organisations, perhaps aware of the distracting issue of Britishness, have reframed them as college values. So long as they find methods to exemplify and explore the implications of the values as stated under Prevent (and demonstrate that to Ofsted), they are within their rights to do so.

Practitioners have been promoting, embodying and in some cases teaching the values for years without articulating them as British. So while it is a legal duty to comply with Prevent, and many would say a clear moral responsibility, we have ways to ensure that the values sit well with everyone.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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