Parents of children as young as nine have reacted angrily after schools in an east London borough asked pupils to complete surveys designed to provide clues to possible radicalisation. Waltham Forest council has been piloting the scheme in five primary schools with large Muslim intakes. The questionnaire, circulated among year 6 pupils, asks how much they trust the police and people from another race or religion.
They are also asked whether they agree that it is acceptable to marry someone from outside their race or religion and whether women are just as good as men at work. Another question asks if the pupils believe their religion is the only correct one. About 22% of the population in Waltham Forest, one of the most deprived local authorities in England, are Muslim.
The programme has been funded with a €500,000 (£360,000) grant from an EU fund – the Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism Programme – designed to “identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age”.
But some parents have complained they were not consulted about the surveys. One parent of an 11-year-old boy at Buxton primary school in Leytonstone, who was asked to complete the questionnaire, said: “This is why we need to get involved with this, otherwise ‘monitoring’ like this goes unchecked and without vetting. No letter was sent home explaining this and I found out just talking to my son.”
Other parents expressed outrage on Twitter. “This is shockingly Orwellian,” one said. “Our kids don’t stand a chance. Guessing there’s going to be a big jump in home schooling.”
A council spokeswoman said concerns had been raised about the survey, especially as pupils had been asked to put their name and other identifying details on the forms. Because the surveys were supposed to have been anonymous, all of those carried out so far may be destroyed.
The programme, known as Brit – Building Resilience Through Integration & Trust – is targeted at nine- to 11-year-olds and involves lesson plans and workbooks about identity and belonging. The charity Family Action is delivering the programme to schools.
Among other questions in the survey, children are asked if they agree or disagree with a series of statements including “God has a purpose for me” and “If a student was making fun of my race or religion I would try to make them stop even if it meant hurting them.” They are also asked to tick three boxes with which they identify, choosing from British, Muslim, student, artist, athlete, Christian and young.
A joint statement issued by the school’s executive headteacher Kath Wheeler and chair of governors Tom Williams apologised for any distress caused and said that an internal investigation had been launched. “When we agreed to run the Brit project on behalf of Waltham Forest Council, we were not made aware that this questionnaire would be included. If we had, current procedures would have identified concerns from the outset as this involved potentially identifiable and sensitive information.”
The surveys had been sent to a junior member of staff at the school and had not been seen by the senior leadership, according to the statement. “The local authority has confirmed their intention was to anonymise and then destroy the questionnaires,” it said. “Despite this we will not be taking part in this method of evaluation now or in the future.”
The Islamic Human Rights Commission has urged parents to boycott the questionnaire. Its chairman, Massoud Shadjareh, said it had been designed to target and profile Muslim children. “At this young age, we should be thinking about nurturing and developing our children, not compartmentalising them. I think the questionnaire has clearly been devised by people who haven’t got a clue about radicalisation.
“Some of the questions are just plain ridiculous. It’s also clearly racist and Islamophobic – there would be uproar if they mentioned the word ‘Jew’ or ‘black’ in the identity question.”
Local councillors Mark Rusling and Liaquat Ali said: “The Brit project is a council programme that works with primary school pupils and their families to develop community cohesion. We’re glad this has sparked a debate, as our aim is to encourage people to talk about the importance of cohesion at all ages.”
Bill Bolloten, an independent education consultant, expressed concern. “Some Muslim parents have been saying on Twitter that they will tell their children not to answer any questions at all. It’s important that schools do explore pupils’ multiple identities, but this project is tainted by the desire to spot the signs of extremism in primary school children.”