“We’re good people,” Mr Hassan says to the policeman. “Normal people. We pay our taxes. We’ve never visited accident and emergency with a headache.”
But then the policeman shows Mr Hassan a YouTube film, in which his son Mohammed – supposedly on holiday in Turkey – calls on other Muslims to join the jihad in Syria.
Around the auditorium, there are “oohs” from the audience. A few students shuffle in their seats. Now they know what this play is about. My Brothers and Sisters is a play commissioned by City of Westminster College to inform students about the principles behind the new Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy.
And so the audience watches as Shamilla, Mohammed’s sister, talks wistfully to her boyfriend, Taregh, about “my brothers and sisters in Iraq.” There is a pause. Taregh shifts from leg to leg. “You’re from Pakistan,” he says. There are a lot of comebacks like this in My Brothers and Sisters: it is genuinely funny.
“When your mother lived with us,” Mr Hassan says to his wife, “she used to move the furniture around. One day, I came home and it took me 20 minutes to find the television.”
But there are also serious messages, delivered with some inevitable clunkiness. Taregh, it transpires, knew that Mohammed was planning to leave the country, and tried to talk him out of it. He did not, however, tell anyone about Mohammed’s plans. “You don’t snake your brothers,” he says. “I’m not a snake.”
“My son could be dead,” Mr Hassan says in response. “But at least you’re not a snake.”
City of Westminster commissioned the play from Mad ’Ed Theatre, run by two members of college staff. Mad ’Ed specialises in difficult subjects; previous productions included a drama about the effects of anti-psychotic medication, and another about the invisibility of older gay and lesbian people.
‘It’s about critical thinking’
The company staged three performances of My Brothers and Sisters a day during a two-week period this month, with all 5,000 of the college’s full-time students offered the chance to watch it during lesson time.
In addition, two evening performances were attended by governors, as well as representatives from Westminster City Council’s Prevent team and the Home Office. The college invited education secretary Nicky Morgan, but she has yet to reply. “Issues around safeguarding are really high on our college agenda,” says Pat Squires, the deputy principal. A third of her students, she points out, live in some of the most deprived areas in the country.
“What we try to do is to develop our learners’ resilience in all sorts of ways,” she says. “We’ve had a pastoral curriculum focusing on things like student safety, knife crime. And, obviously, now there’s the Prevent agenda.
“We wanted to develop our students’ critical-thinking skills. To think more critically about the dangers of radicalisation.”
All schools and colleges in England became subject to the Prevent guidelines in July last year. Staff are legally obliged to look out for and report early signs of radicalisation and extremism among students. At Westminster City College, staff were given formal training in the new duty. Already, several have reported concerns to relevant authorities.
Students have been given awareness sessions about Prevent, with police invited to address them. But Darren Luke Mawdsley, director of My Brothers and Sisters and the college’s theatre arts course manager, believes that the effectiveness of such sessions is limited.
“Actually, young people don’t respond very well to an adult coming in and talking to them from the front of the room, saying, ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘Don’t do that’,” he says. “If you tell young people not to do something, then the likelihood is that they’ll go and do it. But if you show them the consequences, then they think about it.”
And, he points out, few of the students will have seen live theatre before. This comment is borne out during the performance: the audience is a near-interactive presence, “ooh”-ing at on-stage kisses, repeating jokes and answering rhetorical questions. (“My daughter is 15,” Mr Hassan says to Taregh. “What does that make you?” There is rustling in the audience. “A rapist,” someone says.)
‘We never talk about it’
The play finishes and, in the brief lull between afternoon performances, Rishi Nair, the actor playing Taregh, says: “Two young kids came up to me just now. They said, ‘I’ve never had a conversation with anyone about this issue. I’ve read it in the Metro or seen it on the news. But I’ve never talked about it.’ As an actor, it’s always rewarding to know that you’re having an impact.”
One audience member, 17-year-old Aaliyah Blackwood, stays in the auditorium after the performance. “In the age that we’re in, with the internet, there are so many ways to get into contact with places like Syria – areas where the extremists are,” she says. “And your mind can easily get clouded.”
Next to her, 19-year-old Jennifer Borges nods. “There are certain things that, if you see them, you should speak about it while you have time,” she says. “Otherwise, it might be too late.”
She ponders for a moment. “Something that’s very simple, that you can see around college, is someone getting bullied,” she says. “Sometimes you see something and think nothing of it, because it’s not your life. But you could approach someone that you know and could help solve the situation. Just by opening your mouth – that could help a lot.”
Mawdsley and Craig Hanlon-Smith, the playwright and Westminster City director of academic and continuing education, took an early draft of the play to the Metropolitan Police and a local Prevent team. They were advised to remove an interrogation scene, so as not to alienate the police.
But Hanlon-Smith insists that the college is not pushing a police agenda. And he is adamant that the play will not encourage witchhunts or terrorism. “If we thought that by talking to students about an issue we might encourage them to do it, we wouldn’t talk about anything – knife crime, sexual issues,” he says. “You don’t prevent things happening by hiding students away – that’s the Victorian approach.”
To complement the production, Mad ’Ed has also developed teaching resources, which provide teachers with up to seven weeks’ worth of post-performance debate.
“It’s not enough to stick people in front of a piece of drama for 55 minutes,” he says. “We want to promote discussion.”
The Prevent guidelines
Under section 26 of the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, it is a requirement for all FE staff to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
A survey by the ATL teaching union last September revealed that, just weeks before it became a legal requirement, 45 per cent of staff in the sector had not received counter-extremism training.
Nearly a third of the ATL members surveyed (29 per cent) said that they were not aware that FE colleges would have a duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.
The Education and Training Foundation has published resources to help practitioners comply with the duty, which are available at preventforfeandtraining.org.uk