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Free schools and academies pose a threat to community cohesion

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Community cohesion faces uncertain times as many areas cope with population change and rising demand for services with declining budgets.

The government has largely opted out of this policy area and, apart from occasional interventions when publicity demands it, local government has been left to manage tensions. But the real problem is that the state has failed to counter the many narratives that undermine cohesion, most of which have no local origin, and there is no positive vision for how we live with diversity and difference.

There are several competing ideas that affect the way local communities see themselves.

First, there are those who hope we can turn the clock back to a pre-migration era in which Britain was apparently homogenous and united. This rose-tinted view tries to pretend that globalisation can be reversed and that the internet can be dis-invented.

Popular nationalist parties are gaining support across Europe. Despite the lack of electoral success, Ukip has unprecedented levels of support and similar parties and even far right groups are sharing power in many other countries.

On the other hand, many people are enjoying the opportunities offered by globalisation and diversity with more openness and tolerance and, most notably, a growth of mixed relationships in which people simply reject any idea of identity barriers.

At the same time, the focus on Muslim communities around the world plays out in many different ways in our towns and cities.

Fourteen years ago I reported the ‘parallel lives’ found in our northern towns. Segregation in schools, workplaces and residential areas has hardly improved and in some cases been further set back, according to thinktank Demos’ integration hub.

Local authorities can look at the trends in their areas and, though they have few policy levers to reverse them, they can wield influence to change the local climate of opinion. At the same time, councils must recognise that the advent of virtual networks can both promote more openness or just reinforce closed communities and therefore they must develop more social media interventions.

The point is that segregation leads to a partial view of the world, tends to make people fear others and allows prejudice and intolerance to go unchallenged. Local authorities need to see this as a threat to their community relations.

Education remains the area that offers the greatest potential to change. Young people are open to new ideas if they are given the opportunity to hear them. However, the advent of free schools, academies and the extension of faith schools means that many have been given licence to operate in isolation from each other, developing their own admissions policies and allowing them to target separate communities without considering community cohesion.

Local authorities have all but lost their strategic role for education and it is left to groups such as the Fair Admissions Campaign to expose the manipulation of the school admissions code, which has itself been found to be inadequate. It’s little wonder that the Demos hub reports: “In 2013, over 50% of ethnic minority students were in schools where ethnic minorities were in the majority (and over 90% in London). This compares to over 90% of White British pupils who are in majority White British schools.”

One of the most surprising developments is that schools are no longer expected or entrusted to provide education “fit for modern multicultural Britain” despite this Ofsted pronouncement. For example, in Greater Manchester, the police have taken it upon themselves to provide “resilience training”.

Perhaps councils should ask searching questions of schools about both their admissions and how they are encouraging mixed communities and good relations (schools are still under a duty to promote community cohesion even though Ofsted does not inspect on this). A more proactive role might have prevented the Trojan Horse affair.

Community cohesion generally is overlaid with the issue of the Prevent strategy, designed to tackle extremism, and the unresolved debate about relations with Muslim communities.

Prevent tends to homogenise all British Muslims and the new measures resulting from the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 add to the notion of a “suspect community”. However, local authorities can develop a much more nuanced engagement programme to build trust with and between local areas.

Local authorities also need to challenge employers, schools, voluntary organisations and faith groups to ask how they are fostering good relations, and to show them that the consequences of the lack of contact between groups is intolerance, prejudice and extremism.

Ted Cantle, founder, The iCoCo Foundation





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