New duties, flawed concepts
On 1 July 2015, a new legal duty was placed on schools and early years and childcare providers to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. The revised statutory guidance stipulates that ‘being drawn into terrorism includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists then exploit.’
Schools and early years providers are now assessed by Ofsted to check that they are implementing Prevent. You will also be aware that Prevent has been through different phases since its inception but currently its most important dimension is Channel, a referral, multi-agency assessment and intervention process meant to protect people at risk of ‘radicalisation’. Channel is driven by multi-agency panels in which the police play a leading role.
I want to identify some of the key concerns about the Prevent duty, as well as suggest some positive alternative approaches, and discuss some of the challenges we face in organising against Prevent in partnership with teachers as well as the pupils, parents and communities that Prevent is impacting on.
Firstly, the model that underpins the government’s concept of ‘radicalisation’, and which is central to Prevent, is informed by a notion of ‘psychological vulnerability’; that individuals must have certain vulnerabilities that make them more likely to engage in terrorism.
This means schools should be identifying signs of such vulnerabilities to then be able to halt the process of ‘radicalisation’. It is interesting that leaked guidance provided to the Cabinet’s Home Affairs Committee stated that it was wrong ‘to regard radicalisation as a linear “conveyor belt” moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence’.
Secondly, the Prevent strategy and the new duty are fixated on ‘extremist ideology’; the view that people are drawn into terrorism almost exclusively through ideology. Yet research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology.
In the UK therefore, but also in the USA and Australia, training for teachers, often delivered by police officers, urges teachers to report signs of radicalisation among their pupils, despite there being simply no empirical evidence at all to support the idea that terrorism can be correlated with factors to do with family, identity and emotional wellbeing.
One writer described this as ‘orientalist pseudoscience’. Beneath the jargon on ‘risks’, ‘vulnerabilities’, ‘engagement factors’ and ‘psychological hooks’, is an invitation to limitless racial and religious profiling in which normal teenage behaviours, or a young person’s beliefs, can be seen as indicators of being on the pathway to violent extremism. In fact, again, studies show that there is no direct link at all between religious observance, radical ideas, emotional wellbeing and violent acts.
But this is how Prevent operates in schools: identifying threats before they emerge in the so-called ‘pre-crime space’.
You might remember that a senior British police officer, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty, recently called for a move into the ‘private space of Muslims’ and offered specific advice: if a teenager stops shopping at Marks and Spencer, it could be because they had been radicalised. He also suggested watching for subtle unexplained changes such as sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol and Western clothing.
A huge concern, therefore, is the tremendous risk of abuses and mistakes in any approach that tries to predict future criminal activity, including terrorism.
By requiring schools and teachers to put pupils under surveillance, casting particular suspicion on Muslim pupils, and profiling them for behaviours that have no real connection to criminal behaviour, Prevent confuses the different professional roles of teachers and the police, and draws educational practitioners into becoming the eyes and ears of the counter-terrorism system.
An example of this is that there are now several private companies selling “anti-radicalisation” software to schools. If pupils search for words such as ‘caliphate’ or ‘jihad’, or the names of Muslim political activists on classroom computers they risk being flagged as potential supporters of terrorism. A really sinister feature of the software being marketed by a company called Impero, is a ‘confide button’ allowing pupils to report on fellow classmates anonymously.
Destroying trust, fostering discrimination
Expecting teachers and childcare professionals to identify potential extremists undermines trust and positive relationships. We argue that mutual respect and trust between teachers and pupils is essential for learning environments where everyone feels safe and valued. The constant monitoring of Muslim students will destroy trust and encourage discrimination against them.
How much confidence can Muslim communities have in Prevent in schools when many serious abuses are being reported already?
A series of case studies put together by the Muslim Council of Britain on terrorism legislation confirms the worst fears we had about the statutory Prevent duty; we are seeing the duty being implemented naïvely in some schools, but also in crude, damaging and discriminatory ways in others. These are often schools where teachers have attended the ‘official’ Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP) training.
Here are some examples:
- A fifteen-year-old was questioned by police at home about his views on Syria and Daesh because he wore a ‘Free Palestine’ badge to school and handed out some leaflets promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Al Jazeera subsequently reported the conversation between the student and police officer: ‘I explained to him my views about freedom and justice and that I supported Palestine. I said I thought Israel should have tough sanctions put upon it and he said these could be radical beliefs,’ the boy said. ‘He said these are terrorist-like beliefs that you have. He explicitly said you cannot speak about this conflict at school with your friends,’ the boy said.
- In another case, a fourteen-year-old was referred to Prevent without his parents’ consent for not engaging in a music lesson.
- A schoolchild mentioned the ‘history of the Caliphate’ in a piece of homework about British foreign policy and was referred to social services for signs of radicalisation.
- A teacher decided to call in the parents of a student after they used the Arabic term for ‘praise be to God’.
- A Muslim schoolboy was questioned about Islamic State after a classroom discussion about environmental activism. He was left ‘scared and nervous’ by his experience, and afterwards was reluctant to join in class discussions for fear of being suspected of extremism.
Prevent is clearly leading to negative stereotyping of Muslim children and young people, and racial and religious profiling.
As Muslim pupils are now monitored and scrutinised through a securitised lens there is now little doubt that those who fit the profile set out in the Channel Vulnerability Assessment Framework will increasingly find themselves unfairly targeted.
We argue then that the Prevent duty is institutionalising anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia in schools while also undermining the duties of the schools under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that direct and indirect unlawful discrimination is taken seriously, and that individuals or groups of students should not be treated unfairly or put at a disadvantage.
Making schools less safe
Prevent is making discussion of sensitive and controversial issues much more difficult in schools. Pupils with political opinions or who take part in protests are also coming under increasing surveillance.
Children and young people need to be able to speak openly with teachers about the issues they feel strongly about, including sensitive and controversial ones, without the fear that they will be profiled or put under suspicion.
It is perfectly legitimate, for example, for young people to criticise government foreign policy; to oppose the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan; to express support for Palestinian rights or to express either support for or opposition to the Israeli government. One may agree or disagree with such views, however they form part of legitimate discussion and debate.
Undermining the Children’s Convention
The Prevent duty presents a number of specific threats to the rights of children and young people. Despite the UK government being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a legally binding international agreement, there appears to have been no consideration at all given to the Convention as the Prevent duty was drafted. Apart from the key articles that ensure rights apply to all children without discrimination (Article 2), and the principle that governments must act in children’s best interests (Article 3), I think there are very specific concerns in relation to Article 13 which outlines how every child has the right to freedom of expression and ideas.
As Arun Kundnani recently commented: ‘The great risk is creating an atmosphere of self-censorship – where young people don’t feel free to express themselves in schools, or youth clubs or at the mosque. If they feel angry or have a sense of injustice but nowhere to engage in a democratic process and in a peaceful way, then that’s the worst climate to create for terrorist recruitment.’
Schools are now required to actively promote ‘fundamental British values’, including ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.’
By positioning opposition to British values as ‘extremist’, the government are engaged in a similar process as can be seen in France: a crude attempt to create a forced consensus, in the same way the French secular principle of laïcité has become a tool to reinforce narrow judgements about French identity and discriminate against minorities.
The challenges ahead
Some key questions and challenges should be considered:
- What will the cost of Prevent be for the dignity, confidence and sense of belonging of Muslim children?
In a powerful piece earlier this year, Safeguarding little Abdul, Prevent Muslim schoolchildren and the lack of parental consent, Yahya Birt asked his readers to imagine Abdul, a 12-year-old pupil:
‘Abdul deserves a better future. One in which he is treated a citizen rather than as a suspect. Where he can disagree, sometimes even be bold and radical in disagreeing if he chooses to do so, without being labelled an extremist. Where he can be proud rather than be ashamed of being a Muslim. He deserves to be inspired at school, opened up to new possibilities, for his autonomy to be nurtured and respected. This is the kind of schooling and the kind of country that we need to fight for.’
- What will be the short and long-term impact of Prevent on schools and teachers?
Already, in many schools, Prevent is causing significant nervousness and confusion among teachers. There is increasing evidence that teachers identify it as counter-productive and dangerous.
A teacher, who did not want to be identified, told a Guardian journalist that her Muslim pupils had become more careful about what they talked about for fear of being referred through Prevent. She added that assessment by Ofsted on how schools were protecting children from radicalisation added an extra pressure on teachers.
- What do we need to do next to challenge Prevent and the thinking behind it, and work towards its repeal?
The National Union of Teachers statement on the Prevent duty was welcome and encouraging:
‘Teachers need opportunities to work together, and with local schools, to develop proportionate and sensible ways for schools to respond to the different risks young people face – one of which, for a comparatively small number of young people, might be exposure to individuals advocating violence.’
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) union moved a motion, unanimously passed at September’s TUC Congress in Brighton, arguing that Prevent ‘could destroy relationships between teachers and learners’. Requiring teachers to spy on and report pupils would ‘close down space for open discussion in a safe and secure environment and smother the legitimate expression of political opinion.’
We must work towards repeal of the Prevent duty on schools, but we need more discussion on what we need to do to achieve that. I suggest that this must involve engagement with school leaders, teachers and governing bodies, as well as working with the NUT, NASUWT and other professional associations.
We also need to develop close partnerships with the communities, pupils and families who Prevent is targeting, and ensure that as well as playing a leading role in campaigning, they can also access expert advice, support and advocacy. Research and analysis is also required to explore what is happening locally and nationally. There is a key role here for committed journalists, academics and human rights organisations. In particular, the way that Prevent is being driven into schools as part of ‘safeguarding’ needs to be more thoroughly analysed and critiqued so that teachers, school leaders and others have the confidence, the evidence and the arguments they need.
by Bill Bolloten | Bill is a teacher and independent education consultant who works with schools, school governors and children’s services on equality and diversity.
This article is an edited version of a speech at the joint IRR/CCIF seminar ‘Securitisation, Schools and Preventing Extremism’