I found myself in a sweaty classroom on a Monday afternoon with 30 colleagues, going through Prevent training. It was led by a former senior police officer, given the task of indoctrinating us in how to spot the indoctrinated. The biscuits were rubbish.
Even for this hardened socialist, the principles behind the government’s Prevent strategy seem commendable. The course aims to tackle violent extremism, challenge terrorism and prevent those with terrorist intent from manipulating young people. It’s noble, but it still makes my teeth itch.
First, the ex-copper told us, it was about “upholding British values”. I naively thought this might mean a love of the underdog, proper queuing and a nice sit down with a cup of tea. It didn’t. As he ran through them, I couldn’t help thinking that they would be better described as “values for being a decent human being”.
He warned us not to think it was just about Islamists; in Worksop, we were more likely to need to watch out for the extreme Right. After he defined terrorists as people prepared to break the law to achieve their aims, the words, “What about the Suffragettes?” came out of my mouth. “Yes, but they were right,” he replied, shifting uneasily on his feet. I tried to be quiet, but couldn’t help interjecting in a Pythonesque style every time he said something bad about religion. “Religion can be a force for good!” I proclaimed. “Think of the schools, the food banks, the aqueducts!” I made up the aqueducts bit.
Our speaker went on to define how someone might be radicalised into adopting an increasingly extreme religious view. He outlined the roles of romance, aspiration and disaffected youth searching for a place to belong.
As a teenager, I fell for the vicar’s son. My family were far from religious but, out of a desire for a snog, I started going to church. Soon I made friends, who I spent a lot of time with. We discussed our shared values and, over time, I became more passionate. Eventually I gave up my job to work full time for the organisation. I married into it, moved my kids into schools that upheld its values, moved house and even went to a special training camp (theological college). Now I spend my life encouraging others to join. I’ve been radicalised by the Church of England. The ex-copper nervously laughed when I explained this.
Faith can be a powerful force for good in young people’s lives; it can give them hope where they had none, and help them to lead happy, fulfilled, secure lives. I struggled to find anything in the session about the positive role of faith. I think I’ll launch my own course alongside Prevent, called “Enable”, celebrating what is brilliant and empowering about the faiths, beliefs and religions of staff and learners. It will encourage people to be strong about faith and to talk about it. And I’ll make sure there are decent biscuits.
Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College. She tweets at @revkatebottley