The fatal flaws in how schools are asked to tackle terror
“Keeping people safe” – this has very much been the line of the Home Office and the Department for Education as they have sought to roll out the Prevent duty in schools and colleges. Since its introduction in July 2015, it has explicitly been framed as part of schools’ broader safeguarding responsibilities – an approach grounded in the idea that some young people are “vulnerable” to extremist ideologies and to extremist organisations, whether face-to-face or online.
Since May 2016, we have been conducting interviews with educational professionals about the impact of Prevent on their working lives. Our findings so far indicate that there is little opposition to the principle of schools having a legal duty under Prevent, when it is looked at in terms of being part of their wider commitment to keeping young people safe.
But we have also found considerable variation in terms of interpretation of the duty, scepticism about the duty’s effectiveness and anxiety both about the possible unintended consequences of the duty and about the bureaucratic, resource and emotional pressures that it is placing on staff. These issues require serious and sustained attention.
Schools on the front line
Teachers and schools are well used to receiving national government directives on all sorts of issues, but the Prevent duty has provoked particular controversy. All schools in England and Wales (along with colleges, universities and other public bodies) have been required to implement the Prevent duty by showing “due regard to preventing people from being drawn into terrorism”.
This includes developing mechanisms to identify and report students who are showing signs of being vulnerable to radicalisation. Such students may be referred to the multi-agency Channel scheme, whereby individuals judged to be vulnerable to radicalisation are offered anti-radicalisation counselling, mentoring and support.
In a sense, the Prevent duty can be seen simply as building on the requirement to implement Prevent that already existed within the Ofsted inspection framework for schools and colleges – a direct result of the “Trojan Horse” controversy involving some Birmingham schools.
What the Prevent duty has done, however, is put the existing requirement on to a legal footing and place teachers and schools – in a very public way – on the frontline of counter-terrorism policy.
The implementation of the Prevent duty in schools was always going to present a considerable challenge, not least because of the highly controversial nature of the wider Prevent strategy.
One of the “4 Ps” of Contest, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy first formed in 2003, Prevent (the other Ps are Protect, Pursue, and Prepare) was relatively underdeveloped until the 7/7 London bombings of 2005 exposed the reality of a domestic threat from international terrorism.
After that, Prevent was rolled out with the aim of preventing violent extremism, primarily through programmes of community engagement. In practice, this has largely meant trying to identify and intervene with those thought to be at risk of radicalisation.
More recently, the growing Syria crisis and travel to Syria by several hundred (mainly young) Britons has meant that a key focus of Prevent work has also been trying to prevent and disrupt the plans of people intending to travel to conflict zones.
Since its inception, there have been three main criticisms of the Prevent strategy.
Key criticism 1 Targeting Muslims unfairly
Firstly, an initial, explicit focus on Muslims caused inevitable resentment among many of the Islamic faith, particularly at a time when the far-Right BNP was winning council seats and the explicitly anti-Muslim protest group the English Defence League was emerging.
As well as provoking resentment among Muslims, such a focus on specific religious “communities” also ran counter to the then Labour government’s community cohesion approach of building across-community contact and dialogue – an approach that had (and has) a great deal of support from both the public and frontline professionals.
Concerns that the Prevent strategy comprised a top-down intervention akin to social engineering were exacerbated by the large scale of Prevent and its strenuous efforts nationally and locally to develop and support particular types of Muslim community leadership, favouring supposedly more “moderate” forms of Islamic religious interpretation. This led the late sociologist Stuart Hall to call Prevent “the most profound internal penetration of an ethnic community” under British multiculturalism.
In the Prevent review of 2011, the focus of the policy was widened to all forms of extremism and the local authority-funded element was greatly reduced, but the reputational damage to the Prevent “brand” had already been done.
Key criticism 2 The police’s leading role
The second criticism is of the police’s leading role within the delivery of Prevent. It has sparked concerns that the police are, in effect, securitising community relations. While few would argue against the police leading the investigations into actual terrorist plots – and most commentators and reviewers agree that they do a very good job of this – it is less clear that it is helpful for the police to play such a prominent role in Prevent.
Through Prevent, police officers have been involved in direct contact with communities and young people on an agenda supposedly about engagement and education, playing roles that some would argue really belong to, and are better delivered by, youth and community workers.
While schools were not a priority focus for Prevent until the introduction of the new duty, Prevent police officers were already getting involved in speaking in schools.
The prominence of the police in the delivery of Prevent fuelled accusations that the programme comprised “spying” under the guise of community engagement. And, as Arun Kundnani’s Spooked! report for the Institute of Race Relations and a subsequent, highly critical parliamentary select committee inquiry demonstrated, these accusations were not entirely without foundation.
Key criticism 3 How can we identify a future terrorist?
Thirdly, the scientific underpinnings of Prevent – the concept of a process of “radicalisation” – have come under frequent challenge. Prevent rests on the premise that participation in or support for such violence is a product of an individual’s acquisition of increasingly extreme beliefs. However, the predictive power of radicalisation models have been called into question.
Simply put, some people who hold apparently extreme beliefs and view extremist material never go on to advocate or engage in terrorist activity, while some of those who do engage in terrorist activity seem only to have acquired such beliefs after starting to become involved in extremist violence.
Taking this into account, how can we know who will move forward towards such violence?
Such limitations in the science behind the policy clearly raise serious questions about what is in essence a pre-crime approach – an intervention with individuals judged to be at risk of committing a crime before there is any concrete evidence of them planning criminal activity. This is before one gets on to questions about how one evaluates the effectiveness of interventions in a meaningful way.
Because of these three concerns, Prevent was seen by many as being tainted and even toxic well before the duty for schools and other public institutions was passed into law.
Successive governments and various reviews have sought to detoxify Prevent. For example, through the repeated assertions that Prevent (and the new Counter-Extremism Strategy) are intended to address all forms of extremism and terrorism, and the attempt to frame Prevent as being about “keeping people safe” – a far less sensational-sounding aim than trying to curtail participation in terrorism. Yet these attempts have done little to quell criticism of the Prevent agenda.
Little wonder then that the announcement of the Prevent duty for schools has provoked considerable and often impassioned debate.
Our findings so far indicate that among educational professionals there is broad support for the idea that protecting young people from involvement in terrorism or violent extremism can be seen as part of schools’ wider commitment to safeguarding young people. This is an important finding, and one that we would argue highlights the ability of educational professionals to adapt to new policy expectations and incorporate them within their work.
But we have also encountered an array of anxieties and concerns about the Prevent duty for schools. Some of these are what we might call logistical or pragmatic concerns; for example, about the availability (or otherwise) of support for delivering the Prevent duty and the resource implications of doing so – the Ofsted requirement that 100 per cent of staff are Prevent-trained implies cost, however one looks at it.
How many of us have never said something that, on reflection, overstepped the mark?
Other anxieties and concerns relate back to the aforementioned criticisms of the wider Prevent strategy outlined previously. For instance, some teachers we have spoken with have expressed anxieties about how they can deliver on Prevent without inadvertently stigmatising their Muslim students or undermining school cohesion. Some teachers have questioned how schools can ensure that the Prevent duty doesn’t disproportionately divert resources and professional concern away from other crucial professional duties. And some have expressed concern that schools may become “securitised spaces” in which students are reluctant to explore radical (in the wider sense of the term) ideas for fear of the possible implications of doing so.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the concerns that has surfaced most often during interviews has been about whether teachers are doing what they are supposed to be doing. There can be little doubt that teachers and other staff are only too aware of the potential personal and professional costs of “getting it wrong” – both for themselves and for the students.
Fear of “getting it wrong” is often linked to the question of where the thresholds are – ie, what actions, apparent beliefs or verbal statements by students should trigger conversations about Prevent safeguarding arrangements, including possible external referral to Channel?
What makes such decisions particularly difficult is that, as most teachers know as well as anyone, political and social statements by young people (and adults) can be context-specific and “performative”. People often say or do something to get a reaction or test the water – especially when faced with somebody in power.
How many of us have never said: “But I didn’t really mean that”? How many of us have never said something that, on reflection, overstepped the mark?
Fear about the agenda
So what can schools do to support the basic principle of “keeping young people safe”, while at the same time negotiating the challenges and issues that can make the Prevent duty problematic?
This, in essence, is the question driving our current research. We are hearing about a number of initiatives being taken. Some of these are about developing processes that enable school staff at all levels to feel they are being supported – ie, having clear lines for discussing Prevent-related concerns and seeking support and guidance from the local authority.
Other initiatives are broader in scope and relate to the tensions at the core of the Prevent duty for schools – those between monitoring on the one hand and encouraging open debate on the other. For example, we’re hearing about schools increasing the curriculum focus on broader issues of equality, citizenship and “fundamental British values” (another government innovation), as well as schools more specifically increasing opportunities for student debate about extremism and controversial political topics.
This encouragement of open debate – the opportunity for students to share and reflect on differing views around contentious topics – is exactly the approach that some experts, such as Professor Lynn Davies, emeritus professor of international education at the University of Birmingham, advocate as the only effective way to build individual and collective youth resilience against ideologies of extremism and intolerance.
Yet there are obstacles to such initiatives.
First, while this approach would involve more rather than less discussion of radical political ideas in schools and would therefore embody the democratic values that we are trying to uphold, particularly within parts of the UK’s Muslim communities, it is being undercut by fears about the Prevent agenda and the intentions that are perceived to lie behind it.
Second, while many teachers want to promote more debate on difficult issues, they are highly critical of the lack of educational resources, money and policy encouragement from the government for such preventative, anti-extremism educational approaches. Here, the downplaying of citizenship teaching over the past few years has been deeply unhelpful.
In the medium to long term, we believe that schools could be at the forefront of preventing and undermining extremism and terrorism. However, this would require that policy has a renewed emphasis on positive processes of citizenship education, community cohesion and equality, and would require that such a renewed policy emphasis is backed up with suitable guidance and support (including external resources).
In the shorter term, with schools and educational professionals now firmly in the vanguard of the controversial Prevent strategy, we badly need some open and evidence-based conversations about whether teachers and schools have the support they need to fulfil this duty.
Paul Thomas is professor of youth and policy at the Huddersfield Centre for Research in Education and Society (HudCRES) at the University of Huddersfield, and author of Responding to the Threat of Violent Extremism: failing to Prevent
Joel Busher is a research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, and author of The Making of Anti-Muslim Protest: grassroots activism in the English Defence League
Tufyal Choudhury is a lecturer in law at Durham University and co-author of the 2011 Equality and Human Rights Commission report “The Impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Muslim Communities”
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