Can and should schools scale back the radicalisation of youth?

13 Apr

It appears that the Prevent Strategy of the government is failing to halt a minority of young people of Muslim persuasion from joining the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  In 2014, The Sunday Times received an anonymous complaint that 16 schools and academies in Birmingham – two that were faith and 14 which were secular institutions – were being taken over by Islamic radicals. This came to be known as the Trojan Horse affair.

Many, including the Muslim Council, denounced the letter as a fake.  Birmingham City Council, in the name of community cohesion, did little to nothing despite having hundreds of warnings, engaging in a culture of denial and appeasement.

Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Education, commissioned an investigation by Peter Clarke, the former Anti-Terrorist Chief. Clarke found the allegations had substance and legs.  There was evidence that Islamist extremists – some who were governors of the schools and academies – had infiltrated a number of Birmingham schools. The governors had appointed “sympathetic” headteachers, senior staff members and “like-minded” people to key positions, removing headteachers who were not “compliant” with their particular agenda.

Almost at the same time, Birmingham City Council also commissioned Ian Kershaw, a former headteacher, to investigate and write a report on the subject.

The reports of both, Clarke and Kershaw, were explosive. While neither found evidence of “direct radicalisation” both described bullying and intimidation, nepotism, bans on music, sex and citizenship education, extremist speakers given platforms at the institutions and the segregation of girls and boys.  These schools and academies had adopted the views held by Islamic terrorists of the persuasion of Jihadi John, i.e. Mohammed Emwazi, a British citizen, who beheaded a number of captives in the Islamic State – displaying videos of his acts of horror on the internet.  This is extremely worrying because the messages injected into pupils and students are seductive and flying in the face of the government’s Prevent Strategy.  

A victim was the respected headteacher, Balwant Bains, who achieved record GCSE results in Saltley School in Birmingham. He was hounded out when governors refused to permit him to exclude a Muslim pupil who had attacked another with a knife.

Birmingham City Council let down headteachers such as Bains.  Instead of investigating and taking action to stem the radicalisation tide, it wrote 28 “compromise agreements” – a term for gagging deals – to ease senior staff members out of their jobs because that was what their governors wanted.

The Council also paid Tahir Alam, an outspoken activist and chair of the Park View Educational Trust, which was responsible for three schools, to train governors!  Sadly, Sir Tim Brighouse, former chief education officer who had transformed Birmingham’s educational system when he was in charge, and others wrote to The Guardian accusing Clarke of “neoconservative assumptions about the nature of extremism” and complained that “the Trojan Horse affair” had done “much damage….to community cohesion”.

Gove ordered Ofsted, the education watchdog, to inspect the schools.  Ofsted promptly put six into special measures, replacing some of the governing bodies.

Radicalisation appears to continue.   Since 2013, according to The Times, 600 British nationals – many of them teenagers and some school children – have slipped into Syria via Turkey and joined the ISIS insurgency.   This includes four girls from the Bethnal Green Academy in East London. The girls had waited for the Spring 2015 midterm break and paid cash to fly directly to Istanbul.  Their parents admitted that some of the money was raised by the girls selling family jewellery.

Investigative journalists of The Times, posing as school girls, were offered money for flights by ISIS recruiters and told to wait during the school holidays.  It emerged in the week of 23 March 2015 that five more teenage girls linked to the Bethnal Green Academy had had their passports confiscated amid fears that they would also travel to join the militants.

Headteachers appear to be in limbo.   Academy principals/headteachers have to rely on their own initiatives.   Those of schools overseen by local authorities are receiving little or no advice on how to deal with the crisis.   The general trend is for headteachers not to inform the police about pupils whom they have been told may try to join jihadists in Syria because they don’t “want them to be criminalised” according to Nazir Afzal, who recently stood down as chief crown prosecutor for northwest England.  He mentioned that two headteachers to whom he had recently spoken “had no idea what advice to give parents” and complained about a lack of “face-to-face support” for young people who fall prey to online radicalisation.

Just prior to the Easter holidays, two teenage school pupils were stopped in Istanbul, Turkey, as they tried to cross into Syria to join ISIS. Both are studying for their A levels at Preston Manor School in the London Borough of Brent.   Parents of these young people were alarmed to discover that they had disappeared overnight.  When they learnt that they weren’t at the local mosque, they alerted Councillor Mohammed Butt, leader of Brent Council since May 2012, to their disappearance.  He in turn informed the police and the two were tracked down with a 19-year-old, an ex-pupil of Wembley High Technology College, also in Brent.

These three young people, GH, MA and MNG, had travelled overland to Spain to avoid being traced and caught. The authorities caught up with them in Turkey at Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in Istanbul en route to Syria. They were deported back to London. Their parents were overjoyed.  Investigations by the police found no evidence that the boys had been radicalised.  In fact, Preston Manor revealed that weekly (Muslim) prayer sessions held at the school were taken only in English and always with a teacher present to prevent indoctrination.  The parents of these young lads engaged in behaviour that was starkly in contrast to that of the parents of the three girls in Tower Hamlets who blamed the police for not doing enough to stop their children from absconding to Syria.

In late March 2015, several headteachers voiced fears that their pupils would not return because they would have fled to ISIS in Syria during the spring-term break.

Nazir Afzal, a Muslim of Pakistani origin who spearheaded the prosecutions for sex-grooming crimes against girls in Rotherham, observed that challenging the Islamism narrative could not be left to the police because many in the communities the police serves don’t trust the officers.  He remarked that there were parallels between the manner in which some men groomed young girls for sex and the online messages susceptible Muslim teenagers receive from extremists, which were seductive.  He said: “Isis terrorists are deluded, narcissistic, glory-hunting inadequates who call themselves soldiers, but they’re selling themselves with professionally made videos that make them seem glamorous and sexy . . . Isn’t that what groomers do? They make these kids feel wanted and loved, they tell them they understand them and they distance them from their friends and family.”

Meanwhile, the recent report of the Education Select Committee played down the Trojan Horse affair.  Peter Clarke said he was amazed that this was the case adding that it appeared that the Committee was ignoring clear evidence that others had given to him that this was a serious matter.   His report had found examples of intimidation.  In the Birmingham schools which had come under scrutiny, music and sex education had been banned and extremist speakers had been invited to address the pupils, boys and girls who were segregated from each other.

Two recommendations in his report – a database of school governors and limiting governors to sit on the boards of no more than two schools – were being considered by the government when the election campaign had begun, but had yet to be implemented.

Meanwhile, under Schedule 6 of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, which came onto the statute books in March 2015, schools have specific responsibilities to counter radicalisation.   Section 26 requires every school to have due regard “to the need to prevent pupils from being drawn into terrorism”.   The government guidance extends the scope of this function to include not just terrorism but also “non-violent extremism” which could promote a culture conducive to terrorism.

Schools must “demonstrate activity” in a number of areas to include risk assessment, working in partnership, staff training and IT policies.  The governing body has an obligation under paragraph 69 of the government guidance to ensure that this happens.  Ofsted is charged with assessing the actions of the governing body and impact on the schools it inspects.

In discharging their functions under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, schools must have regard to the government’s Prevent Strategy which has been in existence since 2011.  Prevent has three strategic objectives:

(1)        Schools must respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threats schools may face from those that promote it.

(2)        Schools must prevent young people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support.

(3)        Schools must work with sectors and institutions where risks of radicalisation have to be addressed.

In the 12 months to April 2014, councils in 30 areas spent just £1.7m on Prevent programmes, less than half what was spent in the previous 12 months — and only a third of the £5.1m available.  This has not been as effective as many – including the government – would have wished.  Of the estimated 600 Britons who have fled Britain for Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, there are 22 women and girls who travelled to the region in the last 12 months to become “jihadi brides”.

The government is exerting energy to stem the tide of human flow across the Channel via the Continent to the Middle East.   Perhaps, more effort must be made to win the hearts and minds of young, impressionable people who are easily lured by the notion that they are being heroic in being willing to sacrifice their lives – and those of others – to extremism.

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