Prevent Strategy: ‘Teachers aren’t counter-terrorism experts and don’t want to be members of the security service’

21st October 2015 at 13:49
Prevent strategy
The general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union sets out his three-point plan for how schools can help to protect pupils from radicalisation

New and challenging duties with regard to the Prevent Strategy came into effect in schools this term, thrusting school leaders into the forefront of this contentious area. And just this week we have seen heightened rhetoric from the government on measures to prevent extremism.

From a school's point of view there are two major concerns. Is this something we should really be doing and, if so, how do we do it? To put it bluntly, teachers are not counter-terrorism experts, have no wish to be ancillary members of the security service and lack the training to do it well even if they did.

The duty, however, is important. The majority of staff in schools do want to play their part to protect young people from developing extremist viewpoints and from the dangers of radicalisation. So, yes, it is something schools should be doing; the tricky question is, what is their "part"?

Safeguarding students

The safest lens to view this through is that of safeguarding. This is something schools have been doing for years and largely doing well. Safeguarding means understanding the risks that young people face in specific situations and taking proportionate actions to mitigate them. It means weighing up a range of evidence; of understanding and caring for the welfare of the young person and those they come into contact with; of seeking the help of peers and experts where necessary.

Seen in this light this is not such a new thing. And it has several implications. It calls on the teacher to be alert but not to conduct surveillance. It does not demand the suppression of debate, questioning and dissent; an open conversation and a trusting relationship can be an important form of protection. And it calls on the teacher to act in the interests of the young person as well as society.

At the NAHT's recent education conference in Manchester, we heard from experts on the evolving nature of vulnerability and the additional considerations for schools in safeguarding against radicalisation. Another session is scheduled in London on 13 November.

As so often with these sorts of duties, it is easy to let fear or pressure crowd out common sense. I think teachers know how to approach this if they can be given the space and support to trust in their professionalism.

But acting appropriately in safeguarding terms does require an understanding of the risks and how to address them. It requires knowledge of the sources of reliable expertise and advice. And this is where teachers are being let down. There is a worrying lack of training and support for staff in understanding and addressing the risks of extremism. Without support, it is particularly hard, for example, to spot early warning signs of genuine radicalisation and to differentiate those from the traditional challenging and probing behaviour of young people throughout the ages.

Implementing Prevent in your school

In the detailed guidance on our website, NAHT recommends that schools approach the Prevent duty on three levels:

  1. Being able to identify members of the school community who are vulnerable to and at risk of being radicalised and show signs of this – the government defines "radicalisation" as "the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and extremist ideologies associated with terrorist groups".
  2. Knowing how to respond when children or young people show indications that they are vulnerable or at risk.
  3. Ensuring that the components of "British values" are addressed implicitly and explicitly throughout the curriculum and other aspects of provision. And recognising that these values include respect and toleration for the faith of others.

NAHT’s tailored training programme goes into schools to offer targeted help to school leaders who are dealing with safeguarding issues first-hand. 

As far as extremism is concerned, many schools have relied to date on the excellent Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (Wrap) training offered by many local police forces. Safer Schools Partnerships were also helpful. It is an irony, then, that just as their duties become more challenging, much of this training and support is being withdrawn.

We could do with less provocative rhetoric and more practical support from the government. Statutory PSHE on the curriculum (which the government still refuses to implement) and properly accredited sources of high quality training would be a start.

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