Prevent for primaries – a misplaced strategy?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: iStock

An increasing number of primary-age children are being referred to the government’s Channel anti-terrorism scheme. With a bid to remove the duty for primary schools currently in Parliament, how beneficial is the Prevent strategy for this age group?

On February 12, 2015, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was given royal assent. Section 26 of the Act places a duty on schools in England and Wales to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. From July 1, 2015, the duty took effect.

Now an Amendment Bill is currently proceeding through Parliament and is due to have its second reading debate on January 27. The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Amendment) Bill proposes to repeal the provisions that require teachers, carers and responsible adults to report signs of extremism or radicalisation among children in primary and nursery schools.

Rise in referrals

Since the introduction of the duty to report, the number of children and young people being referred has escalated. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act before June indicate that there were 2,311 referrals to the Channel scheme for under-18s. Referrals from schools have risen from 537 to 1,121 according to statistics released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

This rise in referrals applies to primary schools too. It is reported that 352 of the cases referred were for children aged nine or under.

Many primary schools, it would seem, have taken on board the requirement and are fulfilling their duty. For example, in the West Midlands, 68 children aged nine or under were referred including, it is reported, one four-year-old.

What is far from clear among all these statistics is just how effective Prevent has been in reducing radicalisation or in safeguarding primary-age children. The figures quoted are those of referrals and the majority of these would not be acted upon. It has been suggested that action is not taken in up to 90 per cent of cases.

In the vast majority of cases it is adult radicalisation that is the issue when primary schools become involved. Children are flagged up as vulnerable due to their parent’s reported extremist views and/or intention of removing the child to a conflict zone.

As part of a small scale study in January 2016, it was found that 21 cases were brought to CafCass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) as a result of adult rather than child radicalisation.

The Bill now in Parliament is a private member’s Bill brought by Lucy Allen MP. She states that the current duty “places an unnecessary burden on educational, caring and other responsible persons in carrying out their respective roles. People working with young children have been put in the hard position of having to judge whether a child’s actions constitute radicalisation or extremism”.

The Bill specifies primary schools, nurseries and pre-schools and there would seem to be real differences here in terms of the threat and treatment of radicalisation risk in these contexts. However, it could be argued that the training does not take sufficient account of this.

Appropriate training?

The Prevent awareness training has been rolled out across local authorities and schools have, by and large, fulfilled their obligations.

Learn Sheffield provided Samantha Gaymond’s staff, at Stocksbridge Junior School, with the training for free.

She explained: “Several of the senior leadership team have been too. Which has been useful to keep well informed and all my staff have completed online training as well.”

Interesting though the training may have been as an eye-opener into the process of radicalisation, primary staff have not always seen its relevance to them.

Deputy headteacher Joel Brown had the training delivered by her headteacher: “I thought it was mostly common sense when it came to looking for signs. I did feel though that it was mainly aimed at secondary schools as all the examples in the videos were of older children.”

Local authorities were given the task of ensuring that “frontline staff are appropriately trained and are aware of the available programmes to deal with this issue”. This has taken the form of the Workshop to Raise Awareness about Prevent (WRAP). Many authorities, however, have focused their efforts on secondary school training and support and have pursued more of a community cohesion approach to their work with primary schools.

In March this year, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) voted to reject the government’s Prevent strategy after questions were raised about its effectiveness and the support that schools were receiving to deliver it. Instead the union asked for alternative strategies to be developed including the development of critical thinking skills and opportunity for young people to enter into discussion in a spirit of “openness and trust”.

Feeling targeted

Although the strategy is promoted as addressing all manner of radicalisation, for most people it is linked to Isis and Muslim extremism. There are risks that this link can distance communities further and inhibit discussion and openness. There can be a blurring of the line between a child being exposed to extremism and simply being exposed to the intense religious practices of his/her parents. It can be difficult for professionals to recognise the difference.

Muslim families can feel targeted and there is the danger that behaviour which from one child would be interpreted as harmless is given a different interpretation when the child is Muslim.

This has left some families feeling anxious that their children could be taken into care if they express their views. An anxiety that can hinder positive working relationships between school and home.

David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has raised concerns about the potential harm that the Prevent approach could have in communities that already felt alienated and targeted.

In January of this year he made a written submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Mr Anderson claimed that it could have the opposite effect of increasing the opportunity to nurture extremism and that the Prevent strategy has become a “significant source of grievance among British Muslims, encouraging mistrust to spread and to fester”.

Research is needed

There is little research to indicate how effective the Prevent approach has been. Money was redirected in the early days from community cohesion and under the coalition it became direct counter-terrorism. Whether this approach is having the desired effect of making the country safer or is driving communities underground is largely reported on anecdotally.

Mr Anderson QC has recommended that the Prevent strategy as a whole should be the subject of review by an independent panel with the relevant range of expertise, for example in schools and prisons, and with direct input from the internet generation.

He has also suggested that a more limited independent review would be beneficial, particularly into the operation of the Prevent duty in schools. Whatever form the review might take, it should support the development of a strategy in which everyone can have confidence.

Lucy Allen’s Bill is unlikely to reach the statute books. The perception that being tough on terrorism requires those in schools to report their suspicions is unlikely to disappear soon – but it is a position that can make it difficult for schools to build a more effective prevention mechanism based on trust and understanding.

The majority of primary schools will have retained their emphasis upon working with the community. For some, completing the training will have been a box-ticking exercise. Community cohesion may no longer be part of the Ofsted schedule but there was a value in it and in the end retaining this may have been more beneficial than an approach based on reaction and mistrust.

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