`Teachers are uniquely placed to divert young people from the path of terrorism'

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
A change in the law will soon put schools on the front line of the battle against extremism. David Marley reports

Mehdi Hassan was just 19 when he was killed fighting for Islamic State (Isis) in Syria. His family and friends in the UK had his death gruesomely confirmed when fellow fighters posted a picture of his body on Twitter.

Just over a year earlier, Hassan had been studying for his A-levels. He was a bright student, with good grades and a university place beckoning; there was little to prepare his family for what would transpire. They had paid for him to enjoy a privileged academic career: until the age of 14 he attended a private Catholic school far removed from the inner-city state schools that attracted attention last year amid claims of Islamist plots.

Staff at St John's College in Southsea, Portsmouth, think of him warmly. "The staff who remember him best say he was a quiet, well-spoken and hard-working young man," says principal Graham Best. "He had no particular religious or political issues around him at all; people here were absolutely gobsmacked when they heard he had gone away. It was completely unexpected. There was nothing in his background here to suggest it."

Radicalisation, Best says, is an issue that feels "a million miles" away from St John's. "But just because something is a grammar school or an independent school does not mean you are going to be immune to these things," he adds.

The enormous growth in the number of young British men, and occasionally women, heading to Syria and northern Iraq to support Isis means that more schools - state and private, in all areas of the country - can expect to be affected. Schools are also due to come under greater pressure than ever before to spot and tackle potential extremists. A bill currently going through Parliament will, for the first time, place a legal duty on schools, colleges and universities to help fight terrorism.

A Home Office consultation, which closes at the end of the month, calls on schools to protect children from being drawn into terrorist activity by training staff to spot danger signs and challenge extremist ideology, and to work with local authorities to ensure young people are protected. If they have suspicions about individual pupils, teachers will have to refer them for investigation and possible intervention.

Treading carefully

The idea of safeguarding pupils - from sexual exploitation, neglect or drug abuse - is well established in schools. Now added to that list is the need to target religious extremism.

Swift action will have to be taken by school and college leaders to determine what they need to do, not only to comply with the law and the expectations of inspectors but also to keep their students safe. To what extent can they ask teachers to identify potential terrorists? And how do they tread the line that allows them to address the dangers without stirring up problems in their communities?

The current surge of interest in schools' role in tackling extremism was sparked by the "Trojan Horse" scandal in Birmingham last year. More than 20 snap inspections took place in response to allegations of extremist infiltration and of a plot to oust non-Muslim staff from their jobs - five schools were subsequently found to be inadequate. An investigation by Peter Clarke, the Metropolitan Police's former counter-terrorism chief, found that there had been an attempt to introduce an "intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos" into certain schools, although he did not find evidence of terrorism or radicalisation.

`The genie is out of the bottle'

The East London borough of Tower Hamlets was thrust into the limelight in November when Sir John Cass's Foundation and Red Coat Church of England Secondary School was downgraded from outstanding to inadequate. Inspectorate Ofsted severely criticised the school for failing to take action over a Facebook page set up by its Islamic society, which included links to extremist material. Serious concerns were also raised about a number of private Muslim schools.

Robert McCulloch-Graham, director of education at Tower Hamlets Council, says the intense public scrutiny of schools since the Trojan Horse episode has already had a profound impact. "We had dealt with isolated incidents with different schools over a number of years before Ofsted had an interest and before the allegations in Birmingham," he explains. "The borough has tried to deal with individual incidents on a low level, rather than getting the whole population here very worried. But with Birmingham and Trojan Horse and the media attention, that genie is out of the bottle.

"We have to be more proactive now about what we say to the community as a whole. There is nothing different in the number of incidents but there is now an added thing about how schools talk to parents to reassure them."

McCulloch-Graham says the Ofsted report on Sir John Cass's school came as a shock, but he accepts the criticism of the Facebook page. "The school has put its hands up, as have we, that it was poor practice and the criticism from Ofsted was correct," he says. "It was an unfortunate incident, but it demonstrates how vulnerable schools are and how vigilant they need to be."

Staff in the borough's schools - which serve a hugely diverse community with a large number of Muslim families - are advised of the danger signs to look out for. Changes in how pupils behave or dress, young people becoming withdrawn and isolated, and glorification of violence or expressions of sympathy with extremist causes will all trigger alerts.

Serious concerns are referred to the council's social inclusion panel, which includes police officers dedicated to tackling radicalisation. The panel typically has six to eight young people on its register at any one time, with their progress discussed at monthly meetings. This represents a small proportion of the borough's total school population of more than 44,000 students, but highlights a system in which staff and schools have the confidence to flag up concerns.

Last month, a primary school alerted the council about violent and extremist language being used by a six-year-old boy. "Officers have visited the family to check it is just playground banter, however inappropriate it might be," McCulloch-Graham says. "Any indication that we've got of a family that might not be supporting their kids in a way we would appreciate, we will take that information and act on it. A six-year-old is saying it in all innocence, but they've picked it up from somewhere. Is it something they've heard on TV? Is it being bandied around the house? Is it from an older brother?"

The key to getting staff thinking about extremism as part of their everyday jobs is to make it a natural extension of existing safeguarding policies, McCulloch-Graham says. The process should be kept as part of "normal business".

This suggestion is endorsed by former chief inspector of schools Sir Mike Tomlinson, who was appointed education commissioner for Birmingham after the Trojan Horse reports. He has inherited a challenging situation, requiring significant work in schools and at the local authority, and is overseeing the development of a plan to tackle the city's education issues. In time, this will include school improvement, early years and special educational needs. But the priorities at the moment are in two areas: safeguarding and governance.

"There is no evidence that pupils have been radicalised in Birmingham but there is potential exposure to extremism," he says. "It is a fine line, but it is important. Safeguarding used to be seen as an abuse issue, but exposure to extremism is now in that same category."

Welcome the whistle-blowers

Staff need to be trained to feel comfortable with identifying suspicious behaviour, Sir Mike adds. But a much deeper change also needs to take place to ensure that staff are happy to raise concerns about pupils and colleagues. When teachers initially flagged up their worries about what was happening in some Birmingham schools - long before the Trojan Horse allegations went public - the council failed to act.

"The local authority, though it might have been receiving information from different sources for quite a period of time, did not have systems in place to collate that intelligence to indicate that something was going awry and that there needed to be some intervention to deal with it," Sir Mike says. "We have a system where whistle-blowers are not comfortable making information available. A much bigger cultural shift is needed. The Prevent training essentially asks them to report students that schools have concerns about.

"There is still a great fear of the consequences of being a whistle-blower. It's not just in schools, but in business and the NHS and so on. In Birmingham, we have examined how to deal with whistle-blowers, otherwise people will not speak up. Then before you know where you are, that person who could have been counselled against going further has gone further [down the path towards extremism]."

Sir Mike is keen to stress that the proportion of schools in Birmingham swept up in the Trojan Horse allegations is small. More than 80 per cent of the 400-plus schools in the city are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, he says. And leaders from some of those high-performing institutions have agreed to work closely with the schools affected to ensure that they improve as quickly as possible. "It would be wrong to talk about Birmingham schools as a complete bloc," he adds. "It is not a picture of overall doom and gloom."

But there is also recognition that it will take time to eradicate the issues that have been identified, even though headteachers and governing bodies have been replaced. "Training on safeguarding and the signs that teachers should be looking out for has already been delivered," Sir Mike says. "But you will not see immediate changes after the training. You need to look over the next six, 12 months to see the ethos change. It's a tough job."

The Prevent programme, created as part of the previous government's response to the 911 attacks in the US, has been in place for more than a decade. It channels funding from the Home Office into priority areas, responding to the heightened terrorist threat by running projects in schools and colleges.

The Association of School and College Leaders has raised concerns that, in future, Prevent could "create a climate in which particular communities feel labelled as potential terrorists, compromising trust that is essential for schools and colleges to function well". It is also worried that the bill going through Parliament could have "serious negative consequences" for the curriculum and pastoral care. Schools and colleges may be unwilling to report young people at risk, because of the impact on trust, or may go too far the other way by reporting every concern to "cover themselves", the association says.

But Eddie Playfair, principal of Newham Sixth Form College in East London, says the work to tackle extremism in his borough has been "exemplary", which is why schools and colleges have been happy to engage with the local Prevent team to identify students at risk of radicalisation.

"On one level, it's about training staff and making sure that they are alert and aware of behaviour, language, warning signs; just being sensitised to the signs that a young person might be in danger of violent extremism," Playfair says. "It's not usually one moment. As with other types of safeguarding, it's not always clear.

"But when it comes to concerns, we have to accept that there are experts who are more skilled at this than we are. There might be a joined-up strategy where we do projects and we discuss that with Prevent. Meanwhile, they're doing things that we are not always party to, which are their interventions. They might be investigating a group, or following them on social media, or doing other things that are not in our remit.

"The Prevent team can help train our staff and share as much information with us as they can so we have an understanding of what's going on. They don't march in and tell us to exclude students, but they help us to be alert to the behaviours of individuals and groups."

Reverend Nigel Genders, the Church of England's chief education officer, has criticised the pressure on Ofsted to root out extremism, saying it makes the watchdog a "schoolroom security service".

But Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, is adamant that it is wrong to think about schools' new duties as "snooping". Teachers, he says, have a vital role in identifying young people who may be turning towards terrorism.

"I realise people will jump up and down and say that teachers shouldn't snoop on pupils, but that argument is idiotic," he says. "We pay people in our society to keep a watch on what's going on and teachers are very much a part of that. It isn't snooping, it's keeping an eye on the development of those people we have a duty of care towards."

Glees believes that schools should help to tackle extremism not by talking more about religion but by improving political education. "Teachers are uniquely placed to divert young British Muslims, and anyone else, from the path of terrorism by explaining why liberal democracy is the choice of government of free people all over the world," he says. "It's important to actively challenge anti-democratic and undemocratic viewpoints."

McCulloch-Graham agrees that schools' sharper focus on extremism - even if it sometimes means reporting young people to the relevant authorities - will not be viewed as snooping if it is dealt with in the right way.

"Our schools are trusted in the community, which is something that we cherish and nurture, so the advice that goes out from the schools is clear: there are [negative] influences around and parents should be vigilant and raise concerns with schools and the council when threats arise," he says. "For educationalists, we need to play our role in reducing that risk and working with families. In the majority of cases we see nationally, where kids have run away to join Isis, parents are horrified. In those situations, they'd be very pleased if schools were raising concerns beforehand."

Thought or threat?

There is consensus that although teachers must be vigilant about potential threats, they must also be aware that it is natural for teenagers to think about and openly discuss aspects of their faith as they work out who they are. It is normal for students to experiment and explore their identities and that is something schools should encourage.

"This is an issue that we are often unwilling to talk about - most young people from 15 onwards are looking for their identity," Sir Mike says. "Therefore, there is this tension and debate within themselves and their groups about cultural values and the values they see more broadly in society - which, for want of a better term, are British values. The question for many of them is whether they are incompatible."

Playfair says that educators have to be "very careful" to get the balance right. "This isn't about objecting to people's views or saying that you can't have an opinion about Palestine or Afghanistan," he says. "In a sixth-form setting, you are working with young adults who are exploring their identities and beliefs, trying to find their place in the world and work out what they think about things.

"You want to be a place where students can test their ideas. Within that is a risk that you have to look out for, but the response is not to say we don't talk about these things."

It is commonplace for politicians to make schools the first port of call in solving any number of society's problems.

In England, the Ofsted crackdowns and the new requirement to teach British values show a definite shift in emphasis on what schools will be held accountable for. The swings in inspection grades suggest that schools are still working their way through the change in circumstances.

Sir Mike - who used to run the Hackney Learning Trust and was chief adviser to the London Challenge - is wary of too much responsibility being placed on teachers. "Schools can't be responsible for the whole big societal question, but they do have a role," he says. "You can inspect all the schools you want, but they are not solely responsible for creating good, harmonious relationships across communities."

McCulloch-Graham agrees. "Schools have their part to play and it's a very important part," he says. "No other institutions have as much contact with families on a daily basis. The concern I have is that a nationalist fervour gets stirred up around these cases that does not help social cohesion. But, yes, there is a heightened risk at the moment and there is a place for schools to respond."

`We had to make sure the children were safe': a headteacher's experience

All schools, including primaries, must help to combat extremism, according to a school leader whose pupils include the siblings of an Isis fighter.

The headteacher of a Manchester primary school, who asked not to be named, discovered in October that the older brother of three pupils had joined Isis in Syria, prompting emergency action to ensure the safety of the younger children.

A newspaper broke the story about the Isis recruit, and this was subsequently confirmed to the school by police in a child protection meeting.

"We had to make sure that the children were safe. We were in contact with police on a regular basis about activity at the house, and there were multi-agency meetings to make sure we were kept up to date," the headteacher says.

If schools are to play a part in tackling radicalisation, it has to begin as soon as children start school, she believes.

"We do a lot of work, from nursery right up to Year 6, about children respecting each other's nationality, culture, language and religion," she says. "We work very hard to ensure that children mix and that we challenge any divisive language or behaviour. We're proactive in promoting those things on a daily basis.

"I really believe that has to start from early years. It's too late by the time they get to secondary school. If we're going to do anything about that kind of extremism, it has to start very early and with supporting the family."

What are British values?

All state schools in England must actively promote "fundamental" British values, in line with guidance issued by the Department for Education. The change was brought in at the end of last year, in response to the Trojan Horse allegations of an Islamist takeover in some Birmingham schools.

The values that must be promoted are:


The rule of law.

Individual liberty.

Mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs.

Teachers should challenge opinions or behaviour that contradict these values, according to the DfE guidance. Stated examples of actions schools can take include: examining the strengths and weaknesses of democracy compared with other forms of government; promoting democratic processes such as school councils; holding mock elections; and helping pupils to understand a range of faiths.

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