Thoughts from The Challenge

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Tackling social integration starts in our schools

‘See that man over there?


Well, I hate him.

But you don’t know him.

That’s why I hate him’.

And with that parable, we arrive at the nub of the mystery that lies behind the horror of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. “Pourquoi?” Why? The question on all of our minds.

In a speech in Birmingham earlier this year, in which he set out the principles of his government’s counter extremism strategy, David Cameron said ‘no-one becomes a terrorist from a standing start. It starts with a process of radicalisation’.

The Prime Minister promised a ‘full spectrum response’ to the poisonous ideology of the so-called Islamic State – and those who buy-in to their world view. 

So what triggers the slide from non-violent grievance to participation in atrocities? What are the stages that lead individuals within our communities to turn on their fellow citizens in this way, and what can be done in the future to avert more such futile killings? – the questions that must now be front-and-centre in the government’s review into radicalisation being led by Louise Casey, announced in the Prime Minister’s speech. 

With grief, so too must come learning. Learning, not to excuse, but learning to prevent. It was French nationals Said and Cherif Kouachi in January who executed staff at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It was a French citizen who targeted a Jewish supermarket two days later. And as the full identities of the attackers targeting bars, cafes, the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France emerge, we have learnt that amongst them were French nationals.

British born Mohammad Sidique Khan, Hasib Hussain and Sheshad Tanweer, loaded with explosives, boarded packed buses and tubes in London a decade ago, killing more than 50 people and injuring 770. In all cases, these attackers were products of the countries in which they were raised. Uncomfortable as it is, these are the facts.

At one end of the Prime Minister’s ‘spectrum’ lies the notion of ‘social integration’ – the extent to which we have meaningful and positive relationships with people from different backgrounds to our own. Because we know – the world over – that positive exposure to people of different faith and ethnic backgrounds is a force for improved community relations. And that means us having a sense of belonging within the streets that we live on, the schools that we attend and our places of work. And the academic evidence shows that better relations mitigate against the slide from segregation, to isolation, to violence.

In Britain, indicators of integration reveal that whilst we may be an increasingly diverse country, it does not follow that integration is keeping pace. After the attacks on London in 2005, Sir Trevor Phillips warned that Britain risks ‘sleep-walking into segregation’. Last year the Social Integration Commission found that Britain is divided by income and ethnicity. It reported that these divides are felt as profoundly in London as in other parts of the country, and that integration issues apply to everyone, not just ethnic minorities. The body of evidence published by the Commission provides a basis for the government’s review and the subsequent Cohesive Communities Programme, to be published in the spring of 2016. 

The Prime Minister will take hope from the findings of a survey published today. ‘It cannot be right that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths’ he said in July. On this statement, he has the support of the British people, as two thirds believe that all school pupils should participate in group activities with children from different faith and ethnic backgrounds. 

For some, counter-radicalisation will be too late. For those, the government will rely on other measures within its strategy. But there is a whole generation which has such potential for good, should we succeed in protecting it from segregation and isolation. 

Before reporting to the Prime Minister, Louise Casey must put the role of education and the institutions of the state under the microscope. According to the OECD – a global authority on education systems – our education system is one of the most segregated in the developed world. 

Ours is a complex school system. Free schools, academy schools, maintained schools (run by local councils), voluntary-aided schools (under the jurisdiction of the church) and foundation schools. Many of these operate under different pupil admissions arrangements. We’re not starting from scratch, so we need to think what we can do to promote social integration within the system that exists. For lessons, we should look to Northern Ireland and its Shared Education Programme, where schools form partnerships and share facilities so that children from different backgrounds interact with pupils different from themselves. This interaction would otherwise not take place.

Muslims and non-Muslims alike, we must all ask ourselves: are we playing our part to create cohesive communities?

Can it be right that during the formative years, we are embedding segregation into the daily lives of our children? The Prime Minister has said he does not think so. The British people are with him. Now we must show that we are prepared to act. 

By Jon Yates

Jon Yates is Director and Co-founder of The Challenge – Britain’s leading charity promoting social integration 

A shorter version of this blogpost was published by Times Red Box and can be accessed here (£).



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