How to make Prevent work without fostering suspicion

17th June 2016 at 00:00
The government’s counter-terrorism strategy has come under fire, but colleges need to accept their legal duties

Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, places a legal obligation on the FE sector to exercise “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. The requirement for staff to learn about how best to safeguard their students against radicalisation seems logical in light of the growing terrorist threat across Europe. But how do we balance the communication – to encourage learners to be aware of the risks, without creating either unnecessary suspicion or racial stigmatisation?

In many colleges, discussion around Prevent takes place in group tutorial sessions. The Education and Training Foundation, which provides a suite of online and workshop training, explains that the duty “is not about preventing students from having political and religious views and concerns, but about supporting them to use those concerns or act on them in non-extremist ways”.

Encouraging learners to talk openly about extremism and radicalisation, using local, national and international news as a basis for debate, allows learners the space to explore their points of view and learn about wider implications, without being consumed by linguistic sensitivities. An atmosphere that promotes frank exchange of views may also provide a platform for members of staff to challenge any discrimination and potentially address concerns surrounding those who may be vulnerable to extremist grooming.

Extremism can mean a variety of different things, depending on geographical location and learner demographic. While the so-called Islamic State is at the forefront of recent news, it’s worth remembering that the most lethal attack by a lone-actor terrorist in modern European history was perpetrated by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, when he murdered 77 people in Norway in July 2011.

Missing the point

The government’s definition of extremism in the Prevent duty is: “Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

The idea of a set of values that are specific to Britain is often where the core purpose of the Prevent agenda takes a distracting diversion. The term “British values” muddies the waters. Confusion over its meaning can be witnessed wherever there are posters depicting the Queen, a London bus or a nice cup of tea.

The fundamental values – whether singularly British or otherwise – are the spine of a functioning society and they should not be diluted with out-of-date Dad’s Army-style symbols of dear old Blighty.

If the mission’s motivation veers off course with the word “British”, it may, too, with the other language used in the Prevent duty. “Radical” – a term once used to describe leaders in social reform – has been shifted to relate to terrorism. Being “radicalised” now has nothing but negative connotations.

While debate surrounding divisive choices of language is admittedly fascinating, it mustn’t distract from the point of this duty. The rare but deeply concerning news stories of young people being groomed into terrorist organisations, while studying at FE colleges, demonstrate that this element of safeguarding is a priority to be taken seriously.

Compelled by government

There is a line of thinking that suggests that a prescriptive, state-ordered strategy as an attempt to “fix” a huge and complex issue is a pointless, box-ticking exercise. Can practitioners successfully teach an agenda when they are being strong-armed to do so?

Prevent has drawn stern opposition from the NUS students’ union in particular; it was described in the NUS national conference documentation an “expansive surveillance architecture”. There is room for misinterpreting the Prevent strategy, to use it as a weapon of discrimination. However, it is hoped that a sense of responsibility to fair treatment, backed by the Equality Act 2010, which makes discrimination based on specific protected characteristics illegal, would compel anyone against such misuse.

There is so much content to pack into the curriculum that priorities can shift. As Prevent is a legal duty, it moves this element of safeguarding strategy from something colleges should do, to something that they must do. If that helps drive that conversation, if it demands that tutors have open conversations with students about risks, it will help protect the most vulnerable.

While Prevent duty within a college context does not replace the development of positive communities that work collaboratively to address difficulties within them, at its best, it reinforces that cohesion.

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