MPs have “concerns” about the impact of Prevent – the government’s controversial anti-terror programme - on schools, a new report reveals.
Parliament's joint committee on human rights (JCHR) says that the government should ensure Prevent referrals are made in a “sensible and proportionate fashion”.
The report calls for an independent review of the Prevent strategy – which includes a legal duty for schools to “prevent young people from being drawn into terrorism” – to be undertaken before a new counter-extremism Bill is introduced.
It is expected that the Bill will create new powers to intervene "in intensive unregulated education settings which teach hate and drive communities apart" – such as after-school clubs.
The call for a review comes after TES revealed that the number of people referred by education institutions to Prevent had exceeded the number of tip-offs from the police for the first time.
The surge, from October to December last year, coincided with the introduction of the legal duty on schools and colleges from July 2015.
In March, a four-year old nursery pupil was referred to Luton Council after he had drawn a picture of what was described by the nursery as a "cooker bomb" – but which turned out to be a cucumber.
Speaking about the referral rate, Karon McCarthy, a Prevent officer and assistant principal at Chobham Academy in East London, told the committee that she thought staff might be "feeling very scared” that if they did not report something they would “somehow fall foul of the law."
The committee suggests that it may be “too early” to reach any conclusions on the success of the duty in schools.
'Sensible and proportionate referrals'
The report, published by the JCHR, concludes: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be some cause for concern about the impact of the duty [on schools] and the government would be well-advised to ensure that referrals are made in a sensible and proportionate fashion.”
But it adds: “We also accept that it is very easy for dangerous myths to be spread about Prevent. The only way for these to be dispelled is for there to be rigorous and transparent reporting about the operation of the Prevent duty.”
At the annual conference of the NUT teaching union at Easter, delegates voted for the Prevent duty to be withdrawn from schools and also called for an independent review of the scheme.
Last month, The Times reported that 1,041 children were referred from schools last year to Channel, the deradicalisation programme. In 2012, only nine children were referred.
Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT, said: "We are concerned about the significant increase in referrals to Channel. We believe, however, that in a great many cases, referrals are not taken forward by the Channel panels, and this in itself is an indication of a tendency to over-refer.
“We want government to engage with teachers on this important issue, both to keep children safe but also to be mindful of the stifling effects of the programme. We are concerned that Prevent, in its efforts to protect, is actually closing down debate.”
Labour MP Harriet Harman, chair of the JCHR, told TES: "If those people who worry about Prevent and think it's made it worse are right then you compound the problem. We need to look at [the duty] independently first."
A Government spokesperson said: “The Prevent Duty is entirely consistent with schools’ existing responsibilities, and good schools will already have been safeguarding children from extremism and promoting fundamental British values long before the duty came into force.
"Schools should be safe places where young people can discuss any issue and develop the knowledge to see extremist ideologies for what they are and challenge them. The Prevent Duty is about safeguarding children from extremist ideologies, not about shutting down that debate.
“School staff should use their professional judgement in identifying children who might be at risk of radicalisation and act proportionately. We have published guidance on the Prevent Duty and made a wide range of advice and materials available to the sector through our Educate Against Hate website.”
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