Calling time on the Prevent strategy

The government’s Prevent strategy is causing ‘suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom’, writes Rachel Finnegan of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

The government’s Prevent strategy places a statutory obligation on teachers and educators, without any prior background in counter-terrorism, to identify and report students who express so-called extremist views.

On Friday 24 March, members of parliament will be given the opportunity to support the ‘Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (amendment) bill’ which would exempt teachers, carers and nursery staff working in primary schools and early years education from this statutory requirement.

The Labour Campaign for Human Rights is supporting the bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Lucy Allan, and calling on Labour MPs to add their support in the House on Friday.

Since July 2015 the Prevent duty has required staff at primary schools and nurseries to spot children who are at risk of radicalisation and, if necessary, report them to the government’s anti-radicalisation programme, Channel. The legislation requires staff to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ and Ofsted look closely at how compliant schools and nurseries are. Teachers have raised concerns that a perceived ‘missed’ referral to Channel would have implications for an Ofsted inspection and may result in a rating of ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ from the school’s inspector.

A freedom of information request submitted to the National Police Chief’s Council last year revealed a worrying trend regarding the implications of the statutory duty. The number of referrals rose sharply in the year following the introduction of the duty from 1,681 in 2014 to 3,955 in 2015 and teachers made one third of those referrals. Up to March 2016, 610 children under the age of eight had been reported and there is now an average of one child a week under the age of 10 reported as a result of the Prevent Strategy.

There have been many widely reported cases of very young children being mistakenly referred to Channel and suffering significant distress as a result. The Guardian published a report in February this year of two children aged five and seven who were detained and questioned by the police without parental consent for two hours because of a toy gun. Following a legal claim made by the boys’ parents, Central Bedfordshire council admitted that the teachers had demonstrated ‘a degree of racial stereotyping’ and agreed to pay damages.

Another widely reported incident involved a four year-old who was at risk of being reported for mispronouncing ‘cucumber’, as ‘cooker-bomb’. There was also a case of an eight year-old boy living in east London who was questioned, again without a parent in the room, by social services after wearing a t-shirt which read, ‘I want to be like Abu Bakr al-Siddique’ (Abu Bakr the Truthful). Abu Bakr al-Siddique is believed to be one of the first converts to Islam and not, as teachers had believed, ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’ the leader of Daesh.

In all of these cases and many others it is clear that a lack of consistent training is proving problematic for staff. The statutory nature of the duty is forcing teachers to make a judgment on pupils based on a few hours training, often provided by way of a video and then hastily report cases rather than dealing with them in common sense ways. National Union of Teachers members voted unanimously in favour of scrapping the policy at their last conference in Brighton with one delegate claiming it had so far caused ‘suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom’.

A huge part of a young child’s development is built around their relationships with parents, caregivers, relatives, teachers and peers. Making children as young as four, who are unlikely to be able to understand, let alone hold, extremist beliefs, distrustful of adults and suspicious of their peers is clearly counter-productive to their education.

We would urge Labour MPs to add their support to the private members’ bill on Friday. We support the amendment to remove the statutory requirement of Prevent for primary schools and nurseries and encourage the return of safeguarding in early years’ education that is cooperative and voluntary where a reasonable level of suspicion exists.

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Rachel Finnegan is campaigns assistant for The Labour Campaign for Human Rights. She tweets at @Rachfinnegan

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