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Schools should offer anti-extremist education for all, not spy on those at risk

Under watch. Computer class via Monkey Business Images via

With British schools now under a legal duty to monitor children’s risk of radicalisation, teachers now have the daunting prospect of planning how they are going to go about it.

Although the government’s Prevent strategy has been in place since 2007, it’s only recently that schools have come to the forefront of anti-terror concerns following the combination of the threat from Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the fall-out from the “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham schools last year. But the “radicalisation” which schools are now being asked to spot is a highly problematic concept and any policy built purely around trying to identify it is going to face difficulties.

In addressing what schools should do now, we need to look at what support they are currently getting under Prevent. The police strategy uses a useful “triangle” model for young people that separates young people into three groups: a general group at the base, a middle section of young people seen in potential need of targeting because of influences from their peer group or community that may make them vulnerable and an “acute” group of “at risk” young people at the apex.

Currently, the Prevent strategy asks schools to really only focus on those at the apex. It is doing this through training for staff called WRAP (Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent) to help them spot pupils showing signs of vulnerability to radicalisation. If they do spot something, they are advised to refer them to the Channel counter-radicalisation counselling scheme. There is little or no Prevent focus on the other two groups of young people and this is highly problematic.

Focusing on spotting radicalisation will only ever have limited success and it inevitably involves increased security through police involvement and the worrying potential for a negative and stigmatising focus on Muslim students. Recent clumsy measures that have come to light, including schools that are only monitoring black and minority ethnic pupils and primary schools that have asked pupils to fill in radicalisation-seeking surveys, highlight how such a focus can be counter-productive.

Don’t just focus on those at risk

We need to help schools go beyond this new legal duty and focus on anti-extremism education with the two broader groups – not just those who are at risk. We need to support and encourage schools by giving them permission to bring political debate into schools and to discuss radical ideas with all young people. This should be done both in a planned way, using religious education lessons and re-prioritised citizenship studies, and in a reactive way, finding space in the curriculum for discussion when national and international events impact on young people.

This requires more focus in initial and in-service teacher training on how teachers can facilitate difficult debates. Above all, it needs politicians to give teachers licence to engage in such open discussions. Such an approach would both teach young people the skills and conventions of democratic political debate and help them develop the skills of questioning and checking different sources and claims.

An example of this is the work we’ve done at the University of Huddersfield with Kirklees Council and parliament’s education service. The [“My Country, My Vote”](]( project has involved young people in local high schools forming campaigning groups on local, national and international issues, standing for elections in which hundreds of fellow students voted. The project has encouraged passionate and engaged involvement from young people, with young Muslim women at the fore. It involved community cohesion within and between schools and has shown young people the power of democratic involvement.

Police take a step back

Of course, there are risks and difficulties in allowing open debate of controversial subjects within schools, but even the most inflammatory statements made will be mild compared to the extremist material available with the click of a mouse. The way to defeat extremism is to confront young people with radical ideologies and then critique them, not shield them.

Not the right path. Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive

Such a broad and non-stigmatising approach of educating all young children against extremism would legitimise the focus on vulnerable children and would also enable a targeting of smaller groups in need of more sustained educational input. Schools could and should be supported to draw on special educational projects, such as the South Wales-based Think Project that Ted Cantle from the Institute of Community Cohesion and I have been supporting.

Think is a project aimed at “vulnerable” white young people with strong racist views about minorities and at risk of influence by far-right groups. Rather than condemn them, Think takes them through an intense educational programme that includes meetings with Muslims and asylum seekers, so that young people can experience the human reality behind the stereotypes. This experience has enabled profound learning and attitudinal shifts among most of the young people talking part.

So far, only a few details have emerged via Freedom of Information requests about how the £40m budget for Prevent – which is largely led by the police – is being spent. But the police need to step back and Prevent should resource projects that schools and colleges can draw on for work with targeted groups of students.

Helping schools to focus much more on anti-extremism education in general and with targeted groups will not guarantee to stop any young person moving towards terrorist acts – but no preventative measures can guarantee that.

However, unlike the negative basis of the “spot the potential terrorist” approach currently set out in the Prevent guidelines, focusing on genuine educational processes with young people of all ethnic, social and faith backgrounds will provide a positive and non-stigmatising basis for work on radicalisation. It must be one that supports the democratic values of equal citizenship that we are defending in the face of terrorist violence.

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