School heads raise alarm over new duty to protect students from extremism
Anna – not her real name – finds it hard to imagine a scenario that would prompt her to report that a pupil was at risk of being sucked into terrorist activity. The multicultural West Midlands school of which she is head has a strong ethos of tolerance and diversity, she explains. And yet she questions whether her confidence is misplaced.
“I wonder if the people at the Bethnal Green Academy thought the same thing as me a year ago,” she says. “That’s the fear, isn’t it? Getting this wrong is terrifying.”
From 1 July all schools will have a legal duty to prevent pupils being drawn into terrorism – defined as not just violent extremism, but also non-violent extremism that can “create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and popularise views which terrorists exploit”.
In the wake of the departure of three teenage girls from Bethnal Green Academy to Syria in February, it’s an issue that feels very real for heads and teachers, according to Sara Khan, whose anti-extremism charity Inspire has worked with more than 50 schools in recent months. While some schools have been responding to similar themes for years, for others it’s entirely new ground.
But there are a raft of concerns about the statutory requirement, which falls under the Prevent agenda, the part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy designed to reduce the threat to the UK by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Will it stifle crucial debate, increase tensions in multi-faith communities, or criminalise young people for nothing more than curiosity? And how are teachers even meant to implement it?
“It’s far from schools’ normal areas of expertise so there’s quite lot of nervousness and uncertainty about how best to do it – and the stakes are very high,” says Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). “If you think a young person is involved in criminal activity or at risk of being drawn into it, you’re going to report it. But the idea of conducting surveillance on students or taking on some sort of policing of students is alien to schools. They’re not trained to know the early warning signs of extremism or radicalisation, some of which are subtle.
“If you think schools are going to be our only guard against this, that’s a very risky position to be in. They have a level of relationship with students that other parts of the public sector don’t have and, there’s verywith significant cuts going on other parts, so they do feel quite exposed.”
Given the unfamiliarity of the territory, the NAHT thinks schools haven’t been prepared well enough. “We need more training and briefing of schools leaders and teachers,” Hobby says. “It’s not enough just to write it down.”
The published guidance explains that staff need training that gives them the knowledge and confidence not only to identify pupils at risk, but also to challenge extremist ideas. But such statements are evidently open to different interpretations, says Anna.
“I’ve heard heads talking about conversations in their school that they’d regard as ‘incidents’, and felt were necessary to report to police under the Prevent agenda, which in my view didn’t require reporting,” she says. “Some [headteachers] were regarding things as extreme that I would regard as exploratory.”
One was a discussion about whether the staff of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, where Islamists killed 12 people in January, “had it coming to them”. “It’s right for kids to discuss that sort of thing because there’s an ideological argument there and an understanding of religion as well,” Anna says.
“At what stage this becomes illustrative of dangerous extremism is a moot point. That’s why the training is really important; our staff need to understand what constitutes a real concern. For me it should be about safeguarding children, not criminalising them, and there’s a fine line there.”
Prevent staff will do training at Anna’s school, but for some that’s not an option. Marie, an experienced headteacher in a school serving a diverse inner-city community, says: “I know from speaking to other heads that there are a lot of places around the country where there hasn’t been the capacity to do Prevent training. We need more help and understanding from the Department for Education. These are new kinds of conversations that we’re not used to having.”
She did not want to use her real name, such is the sensitivity of these issues for schools.
Marie worries that if students feel they can’t voice claims they may have heard at home – for instance, conspiracy theories about the US carrying out the 9/11 attacks itself – because they think they’ll be reported by teachers, there won’t be an opportunity to debunk myths and teach youngsters how to critically evaluate propaganda.
“Schools need spaces where kids can say what they have heard and be challenged, and that might help them see it from other points of view,” she says. “We want our students to have opinions; we don’t want them to be passive and mindless.”
The new duty demands that schools ensure children can’t access extremist material when using the internet in school “including by establishing appropriate levels of filtering”. But that’s not always easy without specialist knowledge, says Marie, whose school has recently increased its monitoring. “It’s hard finding out what is the best system,” she says. “The DfE could have some recommended products, and couldn’t they negotiate with providers for something that parents could easily access too?”
Khan, who is adamant teachers aren’t being asked to spy on children, says “lots and lots” of schools have told her about pupils, male and female, who have attempted to join Islamic State – including cases that have never been publicised. Inspire has also been contacted by hundreds of teachers asking about dealing with both Islamist extremist views being shared by pupils, and anti-Muslim prejudice or far-right extremism. (The guidance on the new duty points out that although the most significant terror threats to the UK currently come from organisations in Syria and Iraq and al-Qaida-associated groups, terrorists from the extreme right also pose a danger.)
A lack of knowledge about the current brand of Islamist extremism, and a fear of provoking anger in local communities, leaves many schools hamstrung, Khan believes. “Many schools are contacting my organisation because they feel unequipped to deal with this issue. They don’t understand what it is that Isis are calling young people to. Many of them A-grade students.
“Some teachers have told us ‘we’re scared of being accused of being Islamophobic’ … and when some Muslim and Islamist organisations are saying this is Islamophobia, or other teachers say this is spying on Muslim kids, you can see why some feel like that. Safeguarding children from extremism is not Islamophobic, but you’ve got to make sure the way you do it is appropriate. If people don’t understand the issue or don’t seek expert help, they will tend to make mistakes.”
Khan, who is speaking at a seminars on the new duty being run by the Association of School and College Leaders this month and next, has made a series of online videos with the London Grid for Learning, a consortium of London’s 33 local authorities that provides schools with ICT services. The videos, designed to help challenge anti-Muslim sentiment as well as Islamist extremism, explore issues including the Isis narrative, messages in Islam that counter it, and the role played by social media in radicalisation.
Anna says: “My generation of headteachers don’t have a clue on the extent to which young people access social media. It’s unfathomable to us. How do you know what kids are exposed to? And how do families and parents know?”
Natural teenage curiosity may also be at play, Marie points out: “They might have visited those websites; it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily at risk.”
A government spokesperson says: “School staff should use their professional judgement in identifying children who might be at risk of radicalisation and act proportionately. Good schools already do this and there is guidance available.”
He adds: “This doesn’t and shouldn’t stop schools from discussing controversial issues – and will give pupils a safe space to develop the knowledge to challenge extremist beliefs and ideologies.”
But some headteachers worry that too much is being expected of them. “We’ve got to realise the balance between what schools can do and the influence of the home, family and social media,” Marie says. “Schools can’t be held to account for everything.”