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21 January 2019

Nazir Afzal’s Diary: Why government cuts to further education are bad news for the whole country

We must skill and reskill to ensure that we have the workforce necessary to support our NHS, care for our aging population, and build much-needed new houses.

By Nazir Afzal

I spent the beginning of the week with the Jan Trust, a charity for which I am a patron. Its work in recognising the important role of women in protecting young people from radicalisation and extremism began 30 years ago in 1989, and progress has been undeniable. In 2010, the charity’s Web Guardians programme was introduced, with the aim of educating mothers to safeguard their children from the dangers that lurk online. Having survived the 7/7 London bombings, the charity’s CEO, Sajda Mughal OBE, launched the scheme to target a section of the population that may otherwise have been unaware of the dangers to prevent similar attacks happening.

In June 2018, funding for the Web Guardians’ work with Prevent, part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, was unceremoniously withdrawn, leaving the charity in a dire situation, having recruited staff and promised women in communities across the UK that the programme would be delivered to them. Since then, women have reached out to Jan Trust for help, advice and support. It’s a credit to the organisation that in September 2018 Google stepped in with some funding for another of their innovations.

I hope that the Prevent department of the Home Office realises the mistake it has made cutting funding for Web Guardians. If it’s good enough for Google, then why not for government?

By the way, there needs to be an independent review of how Prevent is working!

The danger of softly softly

The recent hi-vis abuse of MPs and journalists outside parliament fronted by mini-Tommy, James Goddard, has led to some asking, when does protest become criminal? More than a decade ago, I charged some of the so-called Danish Cartoon protestors with soliciting murder when they called for beheadings. We never see such signage at protests anymore. The deterrent effect of prosecution cannot be underestimated. Like many I am astounded at how long it took for police action – softly softly only encourages escalation of the abuse, and Goddard and his ilk should have been stopped earlier.

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What adult learning really means

I was recently honoured to be appointed chair of Hopwood Hall Further Education College in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. It’s a brilliant place for developing the skills and potential that we need in the 21st century. I am currently overseeing the selection of our new principal after our current one, Derek O’Toole, decided to step down after a successful 11 years.

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Some 2.2 million people in England attend their local college each year to learn, to train, and to reskill. That’s almost twice as many people as attend state-funded schools. Two-thirds of young people study their A levels in a college, and 1.4 million adults attend one. The average college works with more than 600 businesses to ensure that there is a local workforce with the necessary skills. Every day, in a college near you, there will be teachers supporting students to pass their GCSEs after they previously failed to get the grades, to gain the skills needed to succeed in the workplace, and even provide the confidence that comes with learning English for the first time.

Why then have colleges been so ignored for so long? It’s no coincidence that the most overlooked part of the education eco-system is the worst funded. A recent report by the Insititute of Fiscal Studies showed that further education was the only part of the education system to be subject to continued cuts over the past decade.

This funding conundrum means that a student in a college in England can expect around 15 hours teaching and support whilst their European peers get almost double that. It’s not just our young people being shortchanged. A 45 per cent drop in the adult education budget over recent years means we are seeing over one million fewer adult learners in the system each year.

Let’s be clear, adult education isn’t about middle-class couples learning conversational French before a weekend of wine tasting. It’s about skilling and reskilling to make sure that we have the workforce necessary to support our NHS, care for our aging population, and build much-needed new houses. These cuts mean that each year, one million fewer people get the chance to progress and increase their earnings: there are one million chances lost to increase the productivity of the country.

We need politicians to recognise the impact colleges have, but this must stretch into proper, meaningful investment. We need our students to have the facilities that equip them for the future work place; we need teachers that are skilled in their industry, who are paid a fair wage, and we need students to have sufficient hours in the classroom to develop the technical skills required to drive our economy forward.

The safest place in the UK

One of my other roles is national adviser to the Welsh Government (an independent role I share with Yasmin Khan) on violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. It takes a lot to impress me but Wales is determined to make the country the safest place in the UK and beyond. The various actions we have advised on are being implemented, not just talked about.

This week we launched our annual plan and our latest public awareness campaign, this one on coercive control, and the message is clear: abuse takes many forms and we need to stamp them all out. I am incredibly supportive of the NGOS working at the grassroots – I just wish the UK government was too. These are emergency services and should be funded as such – not left to charity and volunteers.

Better times for the land that lost its way

I am preparing to travel on a short working visit to Pakistan, the first time I have been there in 17 years, to assist a project modernising justice. It’s the land of my parents but somewhat lost its way, largely because of the security situation. However, there is good news: it feels safer, better led, more inclusive and forward thinking than it has been. It also has such beauty. You should visit!

Nazir Afzal is a solicitor with experience in the legal areas of child sexual exploitation and violence against women.