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Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Sinister Implications of the Prevent Strategy

I must admit that until around six months ago I had never heard of the government's Prevent strategy. Indeed I know of many people outside education, politically well-informed people, who are completely unaware of it. The Preventing Violent Extremism strategy (Prevent) is a £140 million programme run by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), a branch of the Home Office. All schools and the teachers within it are required by law to be aware of it and to abide by it, indeed it is an OFSTED requirement that schools and colleges make every pupil/student aware of it.

Prevent  Strategy Aims

The Prevent strategy aims to stop the radicalisation of children and young people by terrorist groups. While clearly created as a response to Al Qaeda,  Iraq and the rise of IS/Daesh, for understandable reasons it has not been limited to Islamist terrorism but rather encompasses terrorism and political violence in all its forms. The Prevent Strategy is intended to create a narrative where 'vulnerable' young people are seen as being targeted by predatory groups and 'groomed' into extremism via the internet and strategies not dissimilar from those used by paedophiles. This 'radicalisation' narrative carries the implication that there is no valid political motive behind the young person's actions and that they are the victims of grooming and manipulation.

Clearly there are good intentions behind this. Groups like IS/Daesh and those that sympathise with them should not by propagandising in schools and universities and inciting people to violence. There should be no platform for anyone sympathising with the killers of Lee Rigby or wanting to commit terrorist attacks on the public.

The Dangers within the Prevent Strategy

The problem with the Prevent Strategy stem from its vagueness. Far too much is being left to individual institutions and teachers to decide. Because the government cannot simply target Islamist terrorism for fear of being termed 'racist', the net is being cast rather wide in terms of what sources of terrorism are being targeted.  The government suggests 'far right groups', 'eco-terrorists' and 'animal rights protesters' be included as possible sources of terrorism. Oddly there is very little mention of the IRA or UVF. While one would assume that any reasonable person would be able to distinguish between violence and non-violence, this is not being clearly defined in the instructions sent out to schools. Therefore I know of examples where terrorism has been defined as 'acts which break the law'. I'm sorry, but did not Rosa Parks, the Suffragettes and many other political activists sometimes fall foul of the law? Are we to regard Caroline Lucas as a terrorist for getting arrested at an anti-fracking protest?
This may not be the intention behind the Prevent strategy but that is not the point. Giving individual institutions and teachers free reign to put their own definition on what constitutes terrorism or not without crystal clear guidance is dangerous.

The Policing of Freedom of Speech

Teachers are now fully used to having to fill in huge five-page risk assessment forms whenever we take students/pupils out on a trip of visit. However now this also applies to whenever outside speakers come into a school or college. So if a visiting professor comes in to talk to the students about the Crusades you can just imagine the potential avenues of controversy that one could throw up. Outside speakers now have to be vetted by senior managers to assess whether their opinions pose a threat to vulnerable young people. It is a safeguarding issue; young people must be safeguarded against unorthodox opinions. You may have detected a cynical tone here and with good reason. I think we all know that inviting a spokesperson for IS into school to talk about jihad would be unacceptable. So why is there a need to fill in risk assessment forms unless it is to generally police all outside speakers and restrict the spectrum of opinions allowed to be voiced?

British Values

It is also a requirement of the Prevent strategy to teach 'British values'. Again this is vague and the set of values recommended are more universal values such as freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law than anything specifically British. Unfortunately its hard to see how teachers can promote freedom of speech and at the same time report pupils to the police for exercising their freedom of speech. Moreover since government ministers have stated on several occasions that they wish to repeal the Human Rights Act, should I be reporting them to the police?

Teachers as Agents of the State

In 25 years of teaching, this is the first time that I've ever felt like I've been asked to be an agent of the state, spying on the activities of students. Fine if we are at war, and arguably we are. But again, if the target or 'enemy' is not defined in precise terms then we are on the road to McCarthyism.
Furthermore the government power point sent to schools lists possible indicator signs that a pupil/student is being radicalised. These 'signs' included :

- The student starts demanding more attention in class than other students.

- The student has become critical of government policies.

In the case of the former, it is called being a teenager. In the case of the latter it is called having a brain.

Absurd Cases

Many people will have read the story of the 10 year old boy who couldn't spell terraced and was reported to the police by a teacher for writing that he lived in a terrorist house. Expect such cases to increase. I doubt very much if the teacher concerned was particularly thick, rather I suspect that the Prevent strategy has created such a climate of fear in the school concerned that the teacher feared having his/her collar felt by the police if they didn't act. This is the danger.

How Do We Combat Radicalisation?

The radicalisation narrative has been called into question as an explanation for why young people join groups like IS/Daesh. I'm not going to examine the complex arguments here. However even if one accepts that the basic premise of the Prevent strategy to be correct, the manner in which the strategy is being imposed is not only sinister in its implications for freedom of speech but also not likely to have a negligible effect on the problem. Most IS fighters are not from the UK and if this group are to be defeated it will be by military means on the ground combined with finding political solutions to Iraq and Syria's problems. That said I think the vast majority of people would welcome sensible attempts to stop anyone from the UK travelling to Syria to swell their ranks and then coming back here to commit terrorist acts. However the Prevent strategy as it stands is vague, badly thought out and needs reform.

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