‘Climate of fear’ fuels surge in Prevent referrals

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Unions warn ‘false allegations’ are damaging teacher-pupil relationships

The number of people referred by education institutions to Prevent – the government’s controversial anti-terror programme – has exceeded the number of tip-offs from the police for the first time, TES can reveal.

News of the surge, which coincided with a new legal duty on schools to “prevent young people from being drawn into terrorism”, comes as teachers are expected to call for the requirement to be scrapped.

Unions claim that a lack of adequate training for “scared” teachers worried about Ofsted checks, has triggered many of the Prevent referrals, leading to “false allegations” and overreactions in schools.

This month, it was reported that nursery staff in Luton had suggested referring a four-year-old boy to Prevent after they mistakenly thought he said “cooker bomb” when pointing to his picture of a cucumber.

‘Smothering expression’

NUT delegates gathering in Brighton for the teaching union’s annual conference this weekend are likely to back a motion from its executive demanding the withdrawal of Prevent from schools.

It claims that the strategy could “worsen” pupil-teacher relations and “smother the legitimate expression of political opinion”.

Kevin Courtney, NUT deputy general secretary, said: “People feel under pressure and feel they have to behave in ways that aren’t necessarily required.”

Between April and December 2015, the number of Prevent referrals from the police was significantly higher than those from education and all other public “statutory partners” put together, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) figures indicate (see graphic, right).

But, within that period, the picture changed dramatically after the legal anti-terrorism requirement was placed on schools in July. The NPCC told TES that for the third quarter of the 2015-16 financial year, the number of Prevent referrals from education alone was, for the first time, greater than those from the police.

Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of the ATL teaching union, believes that a lack of adequate training in schools has fuelled a “spate” of Prevent referrals.

“Some teachers are scared and feel that they have got to report things immediately,” she said, adding that some were concerned that they would be judged by Ofsted on the number of referrals made.

“People are worried about what Ofsted is looking for,” she said. “Are they looking for more referrals because of the duty, or fewer referrals because you are actually addressing these things?”

Hank Roberts, a member of all three classroom unions, believes teachers should go through the school’s normal safeguarding procedure, rather than reporting any incidents directly to Prevent, to “filter out the nonsense” and reduce “false allegations” that have “no basis”. He will call for the ATL to take a position of non-cooperation with Prevent in a motion at the union’s conference later in the Easter break.

But the pressure on teachers to be vigilant over the risk of extremism is likely to increase in the wake of the terrorist bombings in Brussels on Tuesday. Former prime minister Tony Blair told the BBC during an education conference last week: “The truth is this extremism is being incubated in school systems, formal and informal.”

Kamal Hanif, executive headteacher of Waverley School in Birmingham – a school for four- to 19-year-olds, where 98 per cent of pupils are Muslim – believes Prevent training in some schools “doesn’t go into enough depth”.

“I think some schools are overreacting about the ways they are reporting things,” he said.

TES revealed in September that police had told more than 100 teachers attending a Prevent training session in West Yorkshire that they should consider environmental activists and anti-fracking protesters as potential extremists.

‘Serious consequences’

Mr Courtney said last week that he had heard of young people wearing a Palestine solidarity badge, or carrying a Palestine leaflet, who had been reported and subsequently interviewed by a Prevent police officer.

“That sort of behaviour, which probably happens much more to Muslim children than to Christian or white children who are wearing the Palestine solidarity badge, stops the discussion and means that people feel they can’t express their viewpoint,” he said.

Mr Roberts told TES that individual teachers might not know the full details of the pupils’ problems and backgrounds. He added: “A number of these [direct referrals] will be false allegations, which will have serious consequences. You are just feeding a climate of fear and a climate of difference.”

A government spokesperson said: “We make no apology for making sure that measures are in place to protect children and young people from the risks of extremism and radicalisation.

“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.”

Ofsted said it had “no expectations” of how many Prevent referrals a school made, as that number would not reveal whether a school had been successful in “keeping children safe from the dangers of extremism”, which was what inspectors needed to know.


Prevent: What are schools required to do?

The government’s statutory guidance on Prevent stresses that schools’ duty is “not intended to limit discussion”. But it says schools should “be mindful of their existing duties to forbid political indoctrination and secure a balanced presentation of political issues”.

The government says that schools should:

Have clear procedures in place for protecting children who are at risk of radicalisation.

Make sure that staff have training that gives them the knowledge and confidence to identify children at risk of being drawn into terrorism.

Ensure children are safe from terrorist and extremist material when accessing the internet in school, including by establishing appropriate levels of filtering.

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