How schools have been pushed to front in preventing extremism

On the frontline. David Davies/PA Wire

The chief inspector of schools’ intervention into the running of seven London schools shines a light onto several emerging developments in the Prevent strategy for countering violent extremism. Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, identified that in six independent Muslim faith schools in Tower Hamlets, pupils may be vulnerable to “extremist influences and radicalisation”. In a seventh school, the Sir John Cass Foundation and Redcoat secondary school, insufficient responses were made to social media after an student Islamic society Facebook group posted links to extremist viewpoints.

Following similar allegations made recently about schools in Birmingham, known as the “Trojan Horse” affair, it is becoming clear that the education sector is being forced on to the “frontline” for tackling extremism.

This is a trajectory of development that can be traced back to the review of the Prevent Strategy commissioned by the Coalition government in 2010. This review sought to “refresh” Prevent and to re-orientate it in several important ways. Especially significant was a move to lessen the emphasis on and investment in “grassroots” community-based interventions. Instead, all statutory agencies were to be required to perform more of the work in identifying individuals at risk of radicalisation and delivering interventions to mitigate these risks.

This shift in strategic intent was made by the home secretary, Theresa May, in her foreword to the Prevent review where she stated:

We will work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation. Here, progress has been made in recent years, but it is patchy and must be better. So we will work with education and healthcare providers, faith groups, charities and the wider criminal justice system.

Since 2011, the delivery of Prevent has had an increased emphasis upon partnerships spanning many agencies. But this has coincided with nearly all the agencies involved having their funding cut. At just the same time as their remit for countering extremism was widened, many local roles and posts have been “deleted” and services withdrawn.

Practical problems for Prevent

The key limitation of the Prevent review was not that it failed to forecast spending reductions. But while its strategic aims and desired changes were clear, it provided far less clarity about how Prevent should be delivered in practical terms. This remains a key concern and is relevant to both its “counter-radicalisation” and “deradicalisation” strands. The former focuses upon stopping people from being exposed to extremist ideologies and narratives. The latter component is concerned principally with what to do about individuals and groups who have already engaged with such ideas.

This limitation is compounded by the lack of a robust evidence base about what works in terms of preventing violent extremism. So while particular schools may be being sanctioned by Ofsted, this glosses a more profound and far-reaching question about how much of what is currently done under the auspices of the Prevent strategy is actually impacting upon the problem?

The limited public data on the performance of Prevent available suggests that, at best, it is “stemming the flow”. For example, data published by the Association of Chief Police Officers identifies that between April 2007 and the end of March 2014, 3,934 individuals were referred to the Channel process by police and statutory agencies. Channel is an intensive programme seeking to intervene with people assessed as being vulnerable to being radicalised.

Of those initially referred to Channel over this period, 1,450 were aged under 18. The police note that about 20% of individuals were assessed as requiring formal intervention programmes. But the really interesting statistic is that the number of referrals more than doubled from 599 in 2011-12 to 1,281 in 2013-14.

Mistrust of police growing

More concerning data about progress can be distilled from the Crime Survey for England and Wales. For example, the figure below shows how the proportion of respondents self-identifying as Muslim between the ages of 16 and 24 who think that the police treat them fairly has declined over the past few years.

Percentage of young Muslim people saying that the police treat them fairly, by gender. Crime Survey for England and Wales, Author provided

The red line shows that the proportion of young males who think the police treat them fairly dipped sharply in 2011. Although this recovered the following year, the overall trajectory is down. The data for young Muslim women (blue line) show a steady year-on-year decline. It is worth stating that Muslims on average generally start from a higher base-level of trust and confidence in the police, but nevertheless the negative trend is worrying in the current context.

Moving Prevent upstream

Undoubtedly there are many successes behind such statistical data, but in an environment where resources available to invest are reducing, understanding what works and what doesn’t is vital for reasons of effectiveness and efficiency. The increased attention being paid to schools suggests a general movement to try and move Prevent activity “upstream” to an earlier point than it has been before, but doing so is undoubtedly contentious.

To warrant such a shift, far greater clarity is required about precisely what problem needs to be solved. Under previous iterations of the Prevent strategy, the focus has principally been upon intercepting the potential for violent extremism. In moving upstream, we may be observing the government shaping up for a more concerted engagement with the problem of non-violent extremism.

Need for public debate

This is dangerous and difficult territory and may require considerable public deliberation. After all, there are questions over what are the appropriate constraints upon government action against individuals and groups who are expressing views that are offensive, but not necessarily directly harmful. And society needs to decide on whether there is scope is there for lawful action against people whose behaviour is unpleasant, but not necessarily illegal. These are challenging and complex issues.

All plausible theories of the social dynamics and mechanics of terrorist campaigns identify a role for “soft support” – a constituency of opinion, on whose behalf violence can be “righteously” performed.

In her synthesis of research on terrorist groups, political scientist Louise Richardson labels this a “conducive surround” – a wider environment or context that is perceived as enabling by those willing to commit violence in pursuit of a political aspiration. But precisely how this conducive surround and the soft support of extremist ideologies can be influenced and degraded currently remains unresolved.