In July 2015, all schools and childcare providers became bound by duty under section 26 of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to protect children and young adults from harm through radicalisation. Amidst an ongoing threat of terrorism in the wider world, systemic interventions to protect those who are vulnerable have become a necessary part of education and care provision in the UK. This is why Prevent in schools is no of vital importance. The European Commission provides the following definition:
“Radicalisation can be understood as a phased and complex process in which an individual or a group embraces a radical ideology or belief that accepts, uses or condones violence, including acts of terrorism within the meaning of the Directive on combating terrorism, to reach a specific political or ideological purpose.”
Radicalisation can sit on a spectrum from extremist political to religious views; however, the outcome is antisocial, perpetuating hate and causing harm to others.
Encouraged by sensationalist stories in the media, the concept of radicalisation has become almost as sensitive a topic as the process itself, with the need to manage risk contested by the importance of preventing stigma and discrimination against minority groups. Understanding the threat of radicalisation whilst also maintaining a realistic and compassionate outlook is essential in the face of uncertainty.
Government guidance to inform care providers includes ways to create a safe learning environment as well as steps to take if concerned about the wellbeing of a young person, based on a robust evidence base. The following article is aimed at those who work in the education sector, however, an open invite is made to anyone interested in creating a safe and more accepting society, to read and learn about our government’s initiative.
What is Prevent?
Prevent is a government led safeguarding strategy which aims to provide training and guidance to all care providers including those in the education sector. A revised version of the Prevent strategy was published in June 2011, however, putting policy into practice is an ongoing process. Prevent is one of the four elements of the governments counter-terrorism strategy to protect those who are vulnerable and manage the threat of extremist activity
The home office works with a wide range of organisations to deliver the Prevent strategy which aims to respond to the ideological challenge. The strategy provides guidance at multiple levels; from individual care providers to wider systemic actions which can be taken to minimise risk whilst also ensuring a compassionate approach which does not lead to discrimination or social exclusion.
The Prevent strategy has 3 main objectives. These are to:
- Challenge the ideology that supports terrorism and those who promote it
- Protect vulnerable people
- Support sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation
How is Prevent implemented in schools?
Despite an obvious duty of care, it is essential that educational organisations do not feel burdened by the need to become over-involved in the private lives of their students. This is especially so in a way which could become persecutory and encourage social segregation. A recent increase in exposure to minority groups e.g. higher numbers of refugees, has led to excluding and often discriminatory behaviour in UK institutions, which can affect mental health and wellbeing subsequently encouraging extremist views. Equally, an increase in the use of internet and political separation has led to an increase in far-right extremism which should be considered with an equal level of concern.
Prevent is about understanding the potential indicators of radicalisation or extremist behaviour and taking the right steps to protect students in a safe and compassionate way. There is no mandatory government reporting for Prevent. Concerns should be addressed by following standard safeguarding procedures but referring to protocol which is local and relevant to the institution.
Following training, a nominated Prevent advocate should be chosen in all educational organisations to act as a point of contact for the remaining staff body. They should also act as the gatekeeper for activating Prevent protocol if concerns have been raised and a decision is made to act. As with any safeguarding procedure, it is important that the responsibility for more severe intervention is not held by one person and there is ideally multi-disciplinary decision making such Team Around the Child meetings to guide the process forward.
Providing training for all teachers or teaching assistants regarding signs to look out for is certainly going to strengthen the success of the Prevent strategy. It is important that education providers can keep and open mind about what constitutes extremist views or values and are able to create as safe an environment as possible, for different ideas or concerns to be expressed. Any activities, campaigns, or events to reduce social segregation, particularly in educational environments with a diverse range of minority groups, is also likely to reduce extremist ideologies by promoting social inclusion.
What can individual teachers do?
As a teacher, it is essential to understand what to look out for in the same way that one might notice other safeguarding indicators which require intervention. Within the classroom, it is important to create a safe space where views can be expressed and explored, without fear of persecution or judgement, whilst at the same time establishing the boundaries of acceptable ideals.
Tips for creating such a learning environment may include:
- Encouraging open discussion around ideological issues and discussing the pros and cons of different points of view.
- Allowing for critical discussion whilst keeping an open mind; supporting curiosity and acceptance.
- Reinforcing the narrative that whilst a range of different belief systems are normal and accepted within society, there are certain core values which underpin the safety and welfare of others.
- Promoting fundamental British values such as democracy, individual liberty, and respect for the law.
Although such steps to promote acceptance and critical thought are no doubt beneficial to the development of all young people in an educational environment, there have been many ethical concerns raised about how to effectively promote fundamental values in and outside of the UK.
As it may be difficult to think outside of the value-system which we have been brought up in, implementing a Prevent strategy in schools holds its own level of risk and so should be given due care and consideration within any educational institution to prevent stigma and discrimination.
Signs of radicalisation – what should we look out for?
Radicalisation does not happen overnight; it is a slow process which is often perpetuated by a hostile environment. On occasion, new ideas or vulnerability may arise in response to specific events within wider society or a person’s inner world, however, this is not a reliable source of judgment as the impact of external events may vary from person to person. It can be very difficult to pick up on the signs of radicalisation without making assumptions about differences in culture and belief. Therefore, it is important to always hold in mind social context and make decisions based on concerns about physical safety and emotional wellbeing (as with any other safeguarding concern) as opposed to belief systems alone.
Potential signs that a student may be at risk of radicalisation or extremism include but are not limited to:
- Becoming increasingly argumentative and refusing to listen to others point of view
- Resistance or unwillingness to engage with other students who are different
- Verbal or physical abuse directed towards other students who are different
- Embracing conspiracy theories
- Expressing feelings of persecution
- Changing groups of friends or distancing themselves from others
- No longer doing things they used to enjoy
- Conversion to a new religion
- Being secretive about their whereabouts or weekend activities
- Expressing sympathy toward extremist ideologies or groups
If there are concerns about the safety or wellbeing of a student, deciding to take action may feel uncertain. The decision will often involve a degree of professional judgement as well as discussion with peers and experts. It is essential that when deciding when and how to act, that decision-making is always necessary and proportionate. That is, that rational judgement is made within the social context of the concerns raised.
In the classroom, a first step intervention may include taking the time to explore ideas on a 1:1 basis with the student or referring them for support services if you are concerned about other mental health difficulties. It is recommended to always aim to build trust, as feelings of persecution can push someone who is vulnerable further towards extremist belief systems or groups.
Research has shown that social inclusion; feeling a sense of belonging in relation to groups is an essential part of forming identity and self-esteem during adolescence. There are several factors which may therefore make a person more vulnerable to radicalisation in this age group.
Risk factors include:
- Social exclusion i.e. being bullied or having few or no obvious friends
- Certain learning difficulties such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome which cause problems with the ability to connect with others
- Belonging to a minority group which may be under-represented in the school environment
- Emotional difficulties caused by abuse or difficulties at home
- A history of mental illness.
If you are concerned that a child or group within your class are expressing extremist views and might be vulnerable to radicalisation, it is essential that you follow the safeguarding procedures already in place in your school.
External agencies and guidance
Within your school or educational organisation, there should already be a nominated Prevent advocate with whom you can discuss concerns and who’s responsibility it is to activate safeguarding protocol.
As this person should have already received Prevent training, they should be the first port of call if you are worried about the radicalisation of a student. Beyond this, there are a number or external agencies you can go to for help and support. These include the higher education authorities, healthcare services (if mental illness or learning disability are a factor) and the local police (who will have a specialist Prevent unit). There may also be charitable organisations in your area to support the social integration of minority groups or provide additional education to those identified as being at risk.
For further information and guidance, please see the following resources and websites.