On 12 September 2001, I went into work as normal at the Islington school where I was head of at the time, only to find a queue of around 50 Muslim parents waiting for me at my door. They were united in their message: “This is not us. We want you to understand that this is not us.” All of this was said – and meant – in the shadow of the Finsbury Park Mosque, where words of hatred and violence were being peddled by others in the name of Islam.
Some 14 years on, as part of the Prevent strategy, the government introduced a statutory responsibility for schools to report pupils whom they suspected were involved in, or susceptible to, extremism. And pretty much hard on its heels, we read increasingly hysterical stories about students being referred for all manner of supposed infractions including, for instance, the 14-year-old who was questioned by school officials after talking about “eco-terrorists” in a French lesson. This student was reportedly asked whether he was in any way affiliated with Isis.
And yet, despite these types of knee-jerk reactions, we know there that is a very real issue at play here. Think of the three girls, aged 15 and 16, from an East London school who – unbeknown to their families – travelled out to Syria (pictured), where they remain today. And I know too from my own experience – both within the family of schools that I oversee in REAch2 and beyond – that some of our children and young people are in very real positions of vulnerability.
I know of at least six cases over the past year that have involved primary-aged child being referred through Prevent. One involved a six-year-old, who had drawn a picture of someone waving a gun. When asked about it by his teacher, he said that this is “like the gun we have at home”. On another occasion, a whole school nativity had to be cancelled because of a concerning series of phone calls from individuals connected to a pupil’s family which led the school to believe it was potentially a soft target for extremist action.
Whether such a threat would have materialised is unknown. What we do know, however, is that our schools and our teachers have a responsibility to inform where they have their concerns. Some have attacked this obligation, claiming that it puts teachers in the position of spying. The same would not, of course, be said of the responsibility on the profession to report concerns over sexual or any other type of abuse. So it is right that schools have this obligation. But that of itself is not enough.
The Department for Education likes to point to “British values”, but try and pin officials down on what they mean and they obfuscate. Ask for the examples of the schools that are genuinely excelling in this area, and they won’t – or can’t - provide them. Ofsted, now charged with assessing whether a school is, in fact, demonstrating British values, fares no better. The bottom line is that, bluntly, schools don’t really know what to do. What you end up with is a series of display cases in a prominent position in the school showcasing British values in an array of fairly crass ways. This clearly doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the multi-faceted situation that can result in young people turning their backs on the country that is their home, preferring instead a regime that demands total submission and allegiance to leaders whose modus operandi is violence and brutality over democratic debate and discourse.
'Schools need more support'
Putting British values on the agenda has undoubtedly raised awareness, but having issued the requirement without the associated support, the DfE is in danger of presiding over something which is at best no more than tokenistic. I fully applaud the government’s general direction of travel when it comes to giving schools autonomy, and allowing experienced heads to run schools in the way that we know works without issuing reams and reams of guidance. But when it comes to something which neither teachers nor heads are expert in, we need more support. We need a further turn of the wheel to really tackle this issue in a meaningful way.
What might this look like? The most effective protection we can afford our children is to help them become critical thinkers. This way, we won’t have to prevent them from becoming radicalised, because they will naturally reject bigotry and be active in the promotion of a diverse community.
So, to start with, Ofsted probably does need to inspect, and, specifically, it should inspect how – and how well – citizenship is taught. Hand in hand with this, we ought to consider attitudinal surveys of our students – what do they really think about the issues that surround community cohesion (or lack of it)? The government’s focus on “character education” could also play an important part here. But again, we need examples and case studies to help us begin to understand what works, and what – frankly – is mere window dressing.
Second, schools need more help and guidance from government on how to engage with different parts of the local community. Some schools do this well, but many do not. This means opening up doors and dialogues with mosques and community groups. We need to be supported in engaging with groups like KIKIT, whose initiative in Birmingham stopped two teenagers travelling to Syria after they had already booked their tickets to go and join Isis. KIKIT outreach workers manning a stall managed to persuade these two young men not to join Isis' dark forces by showing them the reality of its punishing regime. Those two young men are now themselves part of KIKIT’s outreach programme. We need more signposting about groups such as these and to embed them into our own community engagement work.
This means asking for help where help is needed. Teachers need to know that in asking questions it does not mean they are going to be accused of being racist or Islamophobic. Websites like Educate Against Hate, created by the Home Office, can help, but too few schools even know that this exists.
Lastly, structurally, we have a real opportunity in large multi-academy trusts to start thinking more multiculturally. And that includes exploring ideas such as those put forward by the New Schools Network, to have multicultural MATs. Why not have a MAT that has a Muslim school, a Sikh school, a Hindu school and a Church of England school amongst its numbers?
Such structural changes would mean that groups of schools within MATs begin to engage and work as a family – regardless of race, faith or beliefs – in the same way that many MATs currently operate. This would also create opportunities for system-led change where teachers from one faith school could help and support colleagues from a school from different faith.
We need to get real about this agenda, but it needs to go further than the current statutory requirements demand. Too many schools are frightened of addressing these issues head-on, fearful of being accused of Islamophobia. But by not addressing the areas of real concern, we do a disservice to those parents who queued up at my door in September 2001.
Sir Steve Lancashire is the CEO of REAch2 and Reach4 academy trusts