Tackling extremism in schools: the challenge to make Prevent work

Jess Brown
Tuesday, August 30, 2016

While school leaders warn that the government's Prevent anti-radicalisation programme is stifling debate among pupils, many education experts say that with better training for teachers it will help to reduce risk.

Government efforts to tackle radicalisation of young people have been questioned following the reported death of an English schoolgirl who in February 2015 travelled from London to Syria to support Islamic State.

The death of the schoolgirl - one of three teenage friends who attended the Bethnal Green Academy and were radicalised by people they met online - prompted local MP Rushanara Ali to call for a review of the government's counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent.

Ali told Radio 4's Today programme that she had "huge concerns" about the way Prevent is being implemented and the potential for it to stigmatise Muslim young people.

AlI's concerns are shared by unions and school leaders, who warn that its use in the classroom is creating an atmosphere of suspicion that is making it harder for teachers to lead open discussions on radicalisation and for children to seek help.

Under the Prevent duty, school staff are required to identify and monitor pupils at risk of radicalisation and refer those they believe are linked to extremism on to the national support programme called Channel (see key facts, below).

But earlier this year, education professionals at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for Prevent to be scrapped.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the union, said then that Prevent inhibits rather than encourages debate.

Rosalind Godson, lead professional officer for public health at union Unite, says that as well as being unwanted, Prevent is unnecessary because its duties are covered in teachers' safeguarding responsibilities, whereby they are supposed to listen to children and respond to any warning signs of harm.

"If you're working with children and you're open to what they are doing, you should be able to pick up safeguarding issues, which are around neglect and physical and psychological abuse - a lot of [radicalisation] would probably come under psychological abuse," Godson says. "As long as you're on top of the day job, the Prevent system would happen automatically.

"You need to instil the confidence in a child to think through a problem themselves. Even if the child is being brainwashed into radicalisation at home, if they've got enough resilience day to day, they will take it on board, but not succumb."

Lack of training

Wanda Wyporska, lead equalities officer at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says part of the problem is that teachers are not getting sufficient training on how to use Prevent duties appropriately.

"While we recognise there is a need to prevent radicalisation, a lot of teachers I've spoken to have had a short memo or been given an hour's training. The level of training is really poor," she says.

Wyporska is concerned that Prevent is counter-productive for good teacher-pupil relations.

"There are concerns that we're trying to use education staff as police, and that's breaking down trust," she says.

"This is having an effect on young people and creating an atmosphere in school.

"Good teachers educate and will enable young people to have difficult conversations and talk about issues without being frightened."

To help with this, she wants personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons to be made mandatory because it would provide that "space" for young people to have those types of discussions.

Wyporska says teachers should allow children to have a range of views, and be able to talk to them about these instead of "shutting them down" and dismissing them without having any discussion about why they are wrong.

Martin Pratt, executive director of supporting people at Camden Council and policy lead on Prevent for the Association of Directors of Children's Services, also says efforts to tackle radicalisation in schools need to encourage open debate so children feel comfortable coming forward if they need help.

"The Prevent duty is very clearly set out, but it's a minimum requirement and focused on early identification," explains Pratt. "That's understandable because of the risks posed from children going to Syria, but you have to set those activities in a wider educational context.

"Schools ought to be places where ideas can be safely explored, where young people can feel there is a safety and predictability that allows them to talk about things that are concerning them."

Pratt recalls a schoolgirl who had been in contact with people in Syria on social media, but, rather than being scared of the repercussions of coming forward, felt able to raise it with teachers because of the good work the school had done.

"She felt out of her depth, but because of the work that had been done in that school on being able to speak to people safely, she was able to access help," he explains. "Had it simply been a policing exercise, the outcome might have been worse."

Extra support needed

Lucie Parker, policy and research consultant at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says that teachers need to be better supported to properly carry out the Prevent duty.

"There are so many teachers who are referring young people to Channel, and while in a lot of those cases the child might need help in some way, it might not be the Channel programme that they need," says Parker.

Of the 3,994 people referred under the Prevent strategy to the Channel programme in 2015, 1,319 reports came from the education sector, according to figures from the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC).

Parker says: "Referrals are so high because teachers are being put in a position where they're having to identify young people under the Prevent duty, but they don't know what they're doing, so they're referring instead of having a wider conversation about it."

Parker works on the Extreme Dialogue project, which offers resources for teachers to help them carry out the Prevent duty and has been piloted in a school in the UK over the past year with funding from the European Union (see case study).

Extreme Dialogue's teaching resources will be available for use by schools from September.

It also offers one- and two-day training workshops for teachers on how to use the resources in the classroom, which include videos from former terrorists who talk about their experiences.

Initiating coversations

Its core principle is that teachers do not need to be experts in terrorism, but do need support to initiate conversations with pupils and anticipate what questions pupils might ask.

It aims to instil teachers with the ability to improve pupils' critical thinking, so that if they are put at risk of radicalisation, they can challenge it independently.

The Home Office also offers training to help teachers carry out their duty.

However, Parker says the Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (Wrap) course is failing to give teachers the skills they need because it is not compulsory or long enough.

"Some get an hour of Wrap training, which isn't in-depth and doesn't do anything to boost confidence," she says.

"The high number of referrals are possibly a sign that teachers are panicking and don't know what to do."


  • The Prevent strategy was published by the government in 2011
  • It places a duty on councils and schools to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism"
  • County, district and London councils are advised to have a local Prevent action plan
  • All local authorities have a duty to refer young people to Channel, the national programme that provides support for those who have been, or are at risk of being, radicalised
  • Local authorities are funded to carry out the Prevent duty by the Home Office. In 2014/15, they received £40m
  • In 2015, 3,994 people were referred to Channel via Prevent

Source: Prevent Strategy, 2011; Home Office, Prevent duty guidance; NPCC

Case study: Extreme dialogue programme helps Cranford Community College pupils develop critical thinking

Alan Brown, headmaster of Cranford Community College in Hounslow, which piloted the Extreme Dialogue programme, says the approach was more preventative than the Prevent guidance.

"The Prevent agenda is almost waiting until that radicalisation process has started before actually doing something about it, whereas programmes like Extreme Dialogue are about stopping and trying to equip young people with the critical thinking necessary to combat the radicalisation process," he says.

Cranford College carried out the programme over six weeks with Year 10 pupils separated into small groups. The resources include videos documenting former terrorists and talking about how they became radicalised, which pupils watch and discuss.

They also took part in other activities to challenge and discuss ways of thinking around terrorism and related issues.

This includes activities such as getting into groups depending on hair colour, for example, to learn about stereotyping, or lining up on a "spectrum of agreement" over specific statements and then having a group discussion.

"We had to be flexible to discuss things further, but the programme allows for that," Brown says.

Teachers were given a day's training on the approach, which Brown says was crucial to delivering the pilot. "If you were just to pick the resources up and try and teach them, that's not going to be as effective. Training of some form is vital."

Brown says schools need to be "really embracing, not fearing" their responsibility to help prevent radicalisation. "It's the duty of schools to equip young people as best they can for the world they face, and some of the dangers and perils. It comes under the safeguarding duty," he says.

He adds that the responsibility of referring pupils onto Channel does not have to be in conflict with creating a safe space for discussion.

"If there's a conversation [overheard] that raises concerns, then clearly it does need to be raised through the Channel programme," he says.

"In my experience of the programme, the officers concerned are very sensible about these things and understand the difference between someone saying things that they haven't thought through properly."

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