Teachers expected to police extremism as 'frontline stormtroopers', conference told

Stephen Exley

Reporting by Stephen Exley and Kaye Wiggins

Teachers are under pressure to be “frontline stormtroopers” and spy on students suspected of extremist links, a conference heard.

The NUT’s annual conference in Harrogate heard that the Prevent strategy was “shutting down debate” in schools, with teachers reluctant to discuss controversial topics with their students.

Prevent is the government's flagship anti-radicalisation strategy. Launched after 9/11 it aims to get teachers and other professionals to work together to stop young people becoming sympathetic to extremism.

The focus on British values by Ofsted was also proving detrimental to schools, delegates were told.

Executive member Alex Kenny said schools should provide an “environment of enquiry” where topical issues could be freely debated.

“Prevent is a blunt instrument that will do damage and inhibit debate in schools and Ofsted should be allowed nowhere near these issues,” he said.

“We live in a damaged and volatile world and, like us, young people are trying to make sense of it, like us, they're trying to come to conclusions about cause, effect and solutions, and like us they want a space to discuss it.

“Schools are places where that discussion, on ethical and political issues, should take place in an environment of enquiry and it may be an environment where young people say things we don't like, or say things that concern us that we want to address with them, that we want to discuss with them.

“But Prevent conflates a notion of British values and an elastic notion of non-violent extremism that is shutting down that debate.”

Mr Kenny told the conference young teachers and students were wary of instigating debates.

“We are hearing young people telling teachers that they don't want to discuss things, that they don't want to discuss what happened with the Charlie Hebdo shootings; young people who were offended by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but saying they don't want to say it in class, they don't want to say it in schools.”

Wandsworth teacher Jan Nielsen said: “We have to be clear that we are being put in the position where we are really being expected to be the frontline stormtroopers, who listen, why spy and [who] notify the authorities about students that we may be suspicious of.”

Meanwhile, a fringe event at the NASUWT conference in Cardiff on Saturday said some schools were using images of red double-decker buses, Big Ben and the Queen to demonstrate that they were teaching British values.

Teachers said they were “uncomfortable” with the move, as delegates were shown a poster used in schools (pictured below) to depict the theme. It asks pupils to “show you know right from wrong”, to “respect those who keep us safe” and to “accept other people’s beliefs”. It includes images of Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare and a football.

Max Mulvaney, a Surrey-based religious studies teacher, said during the session that the British values agenda made him “uncomfortable”.

“This backs up the idea that there’s something that we do that’s traditional and better than what other people do…That makes me uncomfortable, I don’t like it,” he added.

“It backs up these ideas that kids have already; that people have come here and tried to change things and we’ve got to protect whatever it is we had that’s so much better than what people are bringing to us.”

NASUWT deputy general secretary Patrick Roach told the meeting: “We’re seeing in the UK forms of nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric which promote a kind of ‘us and them’ narrative which I think is a very dangerous place to be in.”

He said the agenda on British values “could give license to those who want to discriminate against our members”, adding: “We have to defend those members who might be targeted as a result of the abuse of this whole narrative around British values.”

Dr Roach said the values described by the government as “fundamental British values” were universal.

“What makes these values British?” Dr Roach added. “It seems to me a knee-jerk response to recent events.”

Related stories:

Pictures of 'Queen and double-decker buses' useds to show British values, says Hunt - 28 February 2015

Heads given insufficient training to tackle student radicalisation, experts warn - 28 February 2015

Nicky Morgan lends support to headteacher of Syria-bound schoolgirls – 25 February 2015

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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