Refocusing on Prevent: Five actions to take now

Written by: Justin Reilly | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It feels like work on the Prevent Duty has gone quiet during the pandemic. Justin Reilly says now is the right time for schools to rejuvenate their focus on Prevent and offers five actions we can take

In July 2015, the UK government introduced a legal duty, known as the Prevent Duty, making it the first country in the world to place a specific legal responsibility on educational institutions to play an active role within attempts to prevent radicalisation and terrorism (Home Office, 2015; DfE, 2015).

The duty forms part of the Prevent strand of the UK’s broader counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, published in 2011.

The 2011 Prevent strategy comprises three specific strategic objectives, the first of which is to respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those promoting it. The second is to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism by offering appropriate advice and support. The third objective is to work with “specified authorities”, including all schools and further education providers, where there are risks of radicalisation.

But while the Prevent Duty has been in place for six years now, the conversation around anti-radicalisation has gone a bit quiet, particularly in the last year.

Fertile ground for extremism

The somewhat subdued stance on anti-radicalisation can partly be ascribed to the pandemic and the perceived threat of terrorism being lower during national lockdowns and border closures. However, the murder of Conservative MP David Amess in mid-October, which was declared an act of terrorism, made it clear that domestic extremism is still very much an issue.

The Commission for Countering Extremism reported increasing attempts by extremists to exploit the Covid-19 crisis to sow division and undermine the country’s social fabric (CCE, 2020).

Social media and the internet proved fertile ground – young people spent significantly more time indoors and online during the national lockdowns and may have been exposed to extremist content.

In fact, CHILDWISE found that between September and November of last year, children between the ages of seven and 16 spent on average three hours and 48 minutes online each day. Moreover, the average time spent online was higher among children in older age groups.

In its report, the CCE found that social media companies failed to act on more than 90 percent of posts containing misinformation after volunteers flagged them. Social media users shared a fake post 2,700 times in which Muslims are accused of breaking the country’s lockdown rules. There was also a 21 percent increase in hate crime toward East Asian and South East Asian individuals, while far-right entities allegedly encouraged online users to infect Jews and Muslims deliberately.

These statistics are a clear indication that Prevent Duty not only requires renewed attention but also a re-evaluation of its scope and purpose to include further clarification on extremist threats.

Practical application in schools

Much has changed since the introduction of the Prevent Duty, especially over the past 18 months. To get back into step with today’s circumstances and turn it into a more practical tool for schools, several elements of the duty have room for revision and improvement.

A re-evaluation by the government will also change some schools’ perception that the duty is primarily a mechanism to get them to refer students at risk of radicalisation to the Home Office’s official programme.

The intended purpose of Prevent Duty is, after all, to institute and foster the importance of anti-extremism within the wider ethos and practices of certain bodies, including schools, who have a “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

In the meantime, schools themselves can start taking steps to counter the threat of extremism. The following five are the most practical:

  • Continue to prioritise anti-extremist messaging as part of the curriculum, particularly for older students, as well as the application of general safeguarding principles.
  • Support teachers with CPD to help them deal more effectively with sensitive issues and complex, emerging challenges, such as the rise to prominence of online harm and abuse.
  • Review the school’s IT policy and conduct risk assessments to help safeguard students from extremist content online, even in the home environment. Of course, this doesn’t mean blocking online access for students completely, as that would reduce chances for online learning opportunities – including how to safely navigate the online world. Rather, using internet filtering software which enables reporting and keyword tracking will give schools a good picture of whether children may be being exposed to extremist content – and how.
  • Promote the agenda of anti-discrimination and anti-extremism throughout the wider school culture, ethos, and community.
  • Recent incidents of racism and hooliganism, such as at football matches, have highlighted that extremism and hate speech may appear in different guises. Make children aware of this by introducing broader definitions around extremism and hatred or hate speech.

The road ahead

The pandemic and resultant lockdowns have created a host of competing priorities, but it is rumoured that a review of the Prevent Duty is imminent. This update has the potential to expand the scope of the duty to cover extremism and hatred in all its forms to support teachers and educators in protecting children at risk of radicalisation.

The roots of extremism are diverse and all can spark very real-world consequences.That’s why engaging young people, addressing their needs, and capitalising on their potential as critical agents of change, needs to become an integral part of schools’ efforts to prevent and counter radicalisation.

  • Justin Reilly is CEO of Impero Software.

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