Dilemmas in abiding by the Prevent Duty

5 Jan

One of the most challenging professions that a young person can contemplate is teaching.   Teachers are required to be all people to all people.   For instance, they often take on the role of parents, in the absence of parental love and attention.   They are required to be alert to issues of welfare which normally comes within the purview of social workers.   Where children suffer hydrocephalic seizures, are seriously diabetic, hurt and injure themselves or even suffer indigestion, they assume the role of nurses and doctors and provide the necessary medical attention.

I           Requirements placed on schools and academies

The latest duty placed on them is one of surveillance. From 1 July 2015, all schools and registered childcare providers have been subject – under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 – to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

Paragraph 16 of the Home Office guidance on the Prevent Duty – which covers schools and academies – requires them to

(i)         establish or use mechanisms for understanding the risk of radicalisation;

(ii)        ensure that staff members understand the risk and build the capabilities to deal with it;

(iii)       communicate and promote the importance of the duty; and

(iv)       ensure that staff members implement the duty effectively.

Paragraph 23 goes on to add that all specified authorities (including schools and academies) maintain appropriate records to show compliance with their responsibilities and provide reports when requested.

(a)        The school curriculum

Paragraph 58 explains that all publicly funded schools must teach a broad and balanced curriculum which promotes the “spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils and prepares them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life”. It also says that schools must promote community cohesion.  This is, especially, significant, given that the previous coalition government of which our current leaders were the senior partners, did away with this compulsory element of the curriculum.

(b)       Working in partnership

Paragraph 69 of the guidance says:

“In England, governing bodies and proprietors of all schools … should ensure that their safeguarding arrangements take into account the policies and procedures of the local safeguarding children board (LSCB).”

Page 7 of the DfE’s advice for schools on the Prevent strategy also emphasises the importance of effective engagement with parents and families. It says they are “in a key position to spot signs of radicalisation”. The advice goes on to state in the third paragraph:

“It is important to assist and advise families who raise concerns and be able to point them to the right support mechanisms.”

(c)        Staff training

Paragraph 70 of the Home Office document says that schools should ensure staff members are trained to give them the knowledge and confidence to

(i)         identify children at risk of being drawn into terrorism and

(ii)        challenge extremist ideas which can be used to legitimise terrorism and are shared by terrorist groups.

It says staff should know where and how to refer children and young people for further help, and that ‘Prevent awareness training’ will play a key role in achieving this.

The DfE’s advice for schools says in the last paragraph of page 7: “Individual schools and childcare providers are best placed to assess their training needs in the light of their assessment of the risk.”

In this connection, the lead staff member and the responsible governor in the area of safeguarding should ensure that they are fully equipped and knowledgeable on where training is available, capitalise on it and take action to protect the school community – especially the pupils/students.

(d)       Safety online

Paragraph 71 of the Home Office guidance says: “Specified authorities will be expected to ensure children are safe from terrorist and extremist material when accessing the internet in school, including by establishing appropriate levels of filtering.”

(e)        School Policy

Page 6 of the DfE’s advice on the Prevent strategy says: “It is not necessary for schools and childcare settings to have distinct policies on implementing the Prevent Duty.” It adds, however: “Schools and childcare providers should have clear procedures in place for protecting children at risk of radicalisation. These procedures may be set out in existing safeguarding policies.”

Staff members must be able to identify children who may be vulnerable to radicalisation and know what to do when they are identified.   They must also “build pupils’ resilience to radicalisation by promoting fundamental British values and enabling them to challenge extremist views”.

The on-line training module on the Channel programme can be found here.

II          Health Warnings

This duty has to be discharged with health warnings and cannot be carried out slavishly. The Prevent Duty presents a number of dilemmas for schools – governors, headteachers and staff, in particular.

(i)         Staff members have to ensure that they don’t muzzle pupils/students when discussing controversial issues, such as what it is to be of a particular religious persuasion or of no faith.  The Department for Education advice is equivocal on the matter.   While it states that “schools should provide a safe space in which children, young people and staff can understand the risks associated with terrorism and develop the knowledge and skills to be able to challenge extremist arguments” it fails to explain whether pupils should be labelled and reported to the police if they articulate what may be seen as extreme views that they or may not espouse.

The Prevent Duty is about keeping children safe from harm, and is part of the wider safeguarding responsibilities of schools.  There is an implicit requirement for schools to protect children from being indoctrinated into radicalisation of any kind – be it the gospel according to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Provisional IRA – but schools must not fall into the trap of indoctrinating their pupils against free speech provided that it does not harm others.

In De l’esprit [‘On the Mind’], published in 1758, the French philosopher, Helvétius, said that human motivation derives from sensation: a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result. The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was condemned by the French parliament.  In Friends of Voltaire (published in 1907), S. G. Tallentyre quoted Voltaire’s famous statement: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That being so, students who espouse the views of a youngster at a Paris school who told his teacher, “I am not Charlie Hebdo; I think the terrorists did the right thing,” have to be challenged.   We have to cease finding excuses and confront extremist belief, albeit this does not mean rushing to the authorities.   There are several young people, for instance, who have suggested that the Zionists were behind the 9/11 attached on the Towers in New York in 2001, that Europeans are privileged so why should they be mourned when killed, and that they should live in the UK by Sharia law rather than that framed by the British parliament.   Such views are anathema and must be challenged.

Fortunately, Muslim leaders are in the forefront of challenging such extremism. Sadiq Khan, Labour’s mayoral candidate, has slated the left’s love-in with multiculturalism, accusing the political cream of promoting “conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked”.  When he was on the BBC’s Moral Maze programme, Dr Taj Hargey, the director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, raged most forcible against Westerners who were soft on the perverted brand of Islamist cultural practices, from the burka to Muslim-only schools.

The daunting task for a school is to find the boundary between freedom of speech and the point where a speech or talk leads to or smack of indoctrination.

(ii)        It has sometimes been the experience of school staff members when reporting suspected child abuse cases to the police or social services that more harm has been done to the children than if they did not report. As a consequence, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some schools are dealing with the cases themselves. While many police and social services personnel operate with extreme professionalism and expertise in dealing with such matters efficiently, sensitively and effectively, others bungle and bluster and place the children in situations of huge distress and considerable peril.

Schools counsellors, especially, have been known not to report cases of child abuse especially when the alleged victims disclose incidents in confidence.

In May 2015, a boy aged 14 was engaged in a discussion about environmental activism during his French class when he used the term L’ecoterrorisme, meaning eco-terrorist.

The Muslim teenager was taken out of class two weeks later and asked whether he was affiliated to the Islamic State. The intervention, by a child protection officer, resulted in legal action by the boy’s parents after he was said to be left feeling “scared and nervous”.  The school, needless to say, has a job on its hand rebuilding its relationships with the parents.

This is an egregious case where good intentions were not enough and had unintended consequences.  A referral of such a kind made under the Prevent Duty enhanced distrust and alienated the family of the teenager that the authorities were trying to reach.  Members of the counterterrorism police are keen to secure community support to be “tipped off” about potential extreme actions. But reporting the Muslim teenager for an “eco-terrorist” remark had a negative impact and placed that school back to the strategy’s starting point.

The introduction of a public sector “duty” (covering schools) to report concerns about counter-extremism is increasing the controversy. The detractors are arguing that it results in unfair referrals and hampers freedom of expression in schools, further education (FE) and higher education (HE).

In the first six months of 2015, 3,288 referrals were made to the Prevent Programme.  Of these, 2,180 were from schools, social services and the health service.  Only 280 were from Muslim community – families, friends and faith leaders.  Does this say something about alienation of the community we want inside the national circle?  Muslim leaders in Newham are uneasy about “spying on our young people”.  In Waltham Forest, the Council of Mosques announced a boycott of Prevent.  The Muslim Council of Britain has said that Prevent would further alienate the Muslim community.

But there is good news.  Jewish schools are committed to heeding the call of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis, to teach Islam as the second religion for GCSE.  The changes in the examination content mean that a school must devote at least 25% of the religious study GCSE course to teaching a second faith.  In turn, Muslim schools have been urged to reciprocate by teaching Judaism.

The Jewish News reported that Asfaque Chowdury, the Chair of the Association of the 130 Muslim Schools, revealed that his organisation had planned to recommend to the schools that they teach either Catholicism or Judaism and complement the teaching with visits to each other’s schools and joint activities between students.

III        Defining Britishness and British values

(i)         An allied part of the Prevent Duty is to promote British values. These are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.  

But are these values uniquely British?  The EU’s founding principles are “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”, which are synonymous.

At a school in West London, a teacher said: “You tell children that Britishness is about queuing up and they immediately turn to their Somali classmate barging into the lunch line and say: ‘You’re not British!’  It turns into a national one-upmanship.”

In a Devon school, a teacher explained that she refers to Britishness by talking – in an anodyne and inoffensive manner about Wellingtons and the weather when addressing a class of seven-year-olds.  And then one child butts in with: “They don’t wear wellies in London – so they are not British!”   She went on to add: “If you say it’s about politeness, what are you implying to the child from Krakow (Poland)?  That he is a rude savage?”

The British values described in the Prevent Duty are espoused by other nations. We could well praise the Brits in flood-hit areas of Cumbria, Lancashire, Manchester and Yorkshire with the Blitz spirit carting in sandbags to defend one another’s houses, draining and mopping up the roads and shops and setting up food banks for the victims. However, the German supermarkets of Lidl and Aldi – German owned – reduced their prices of goods to help people too.

Politicians have had a stab at defining Britishness.    John Major spoke of old maids cycling through the morning mist!   Shirley Williams called Britain a country of poetry.  For the late Robin Cook it was chicken tikka masala (something uniquely Indian and Pakistani).  Gordon Brown considered the Comic Relief Appeal to be especially British.  Their efforts at this exercise have been risible.

(ii)        Writing in The Times on 9 December 2015 Alice Thomson proposed a better scenario, which I would commend to you, reader.

(a)        While Greece had the first democracy, Britain is the home to the Mother of Parliaments.

(b)        We have special institutions which have international renown – despite all our criticisms of them – i.e. the BBC and the National Health Service (NHS).

(c)        We have the rule of law.  Since the Civil War from 1642 to 1648, the nation has been at peace with itself – despite other upheavals.   Even the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when James II was overthrown and William of Orange was installed as monarch was bloodless.

The rule of law goes back to Norman times.   King John was made to recognise it when he signed the Magna Carta at the behest of his rebellious barons on 15 June 1215 at Runnymede.   We are all subject to the rule of law – whatever our status, class and religion – and no one – not even the prime minister – is above it.  (I sometimes wonder, though, what would happen if the Queen violated the legislation framed by her parliament!)

(d)        The country is a real smorgasbord of cultures because of our ability to attract and integrate people from all over the world – since Roman times to the present influx of refugees and asylum seekers – victims of human-made and natural disasters.  In the process, we have been richly blessed with a catholic array of languages, foods, art work and literature. Despite the challenges we face, we are essentially a tolerant society – one that has come to respect differences and even though we often fail, we attempt to disagree agreeably – except, of course, when we encounter those who have the inclination to decapitate those who disagree with their views.

(e)        We are a creative nation and punch well above our weight – especially in the worlds of film, music, drama and art.   We admire individuality and originality provided that it promotes the common good.

(f)        Finally, we are able to laugh at ourselves.   Interestingly enough, Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Education, who announced the Prevent Duty and articulated the British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs said: “There is something rather un-British about seeking to define Britishness”.

Teachers and other staff in school would do well to include Alice Thomson’s special characteristics when promoting the Prevent Duty as all of it is about doing what is right rather than avoiding doing what is wrong.   Ofsted inspectors could also pay due regard to the above list.

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