At the last National Union for Teachers’ conference (teaching union), the majority of teachers voted in favour of the government scrapping the prevent strategy in schools. The prevent strategy was published in 2011 and in 2015 an addition to it was made, giving schools and colleges in England and Wales a ‘due regard’ to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. In essence, teachers and schools now have the responsibility to notify the government if they feel any student in their class is being radicalised.
So why did so many teachers vote against the policy you ask. There’s evidently a problem with terrorism and the best way, surely to prevent the problem is to prevent terrorists in the first place. Unfortunately, the implementation of the prevent strategy in schools has instead stopped students, mainly Muslim, from expressing themselves; alongside demonising Muslim students in particular, and making them feel like complete outsiders and criminals in society.
In 2015, when the addition to the policy was made, teachers were promised they would be adequately trained in spotting signs of terrorism. All teachers were sent to a compulsory training on prevent. Having personally experienced this training as a teacher in Oxfordshire at the time, I can share my experience.
The training consisted of sharing scenarios of students being radicalised. We were shown a total of 6 videos, 5 of which were about the radicalisation of Muslims. Muslim students were shown to be lured into terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaida. The 1 video, that was not focussed on a Muslim student was about right wing terrorism and a student acting violently towards other students in school, as he had joined an extremist group within EDL.
To sum up then, teachers now left this excessively biased training with the perception that they had to look out for their Muslim students being radicalised. Unfortunately, the training did not quite highlight what it was teachers were meant to be looking out for, and as a result, it was up to each teacher to decide for themselves what it was they associated with behaviour deemed to be ‘extremist.’
Muslim students are now looked at first and foremost as criminals. Not intentionally of course, but teachers have now been trained to look out for radicalisation amongst Muslim students in particular, so obviously they’re now going to look at Muslims in a different way. Perhaps they may even misinterpret things that are said. That’s not going to happen you say….well, it already has.
A couple of weeks ago, staff at a nursery school threatened a mother of a 4 year old to send her child to a de-radicalisation programme after he drew a picture of his dad cutting a cucumber. When asked about what the picture was by his teacher, the student replied saying it was his dad cutting a ‘cuker bum,’ which to the teachers of course sounded like a cooker bomb. The child however, was unable to pronounce the word cucumber correctly. The mother had little knowledge of what was going on until one day she was met with a pack of teachers at the front of the nursery, and a report on her child. At no point was the mother informed about the problem, until the very end when the school had already taken action. Parents are now being put into positions,where they are now the very last people to find out what is going on with their own children.
There have been many other cases. In early 2016, Rahmaan Mohammadi from Challney High School, a 17 year old boy, was reported to police for wearing a ‘free Palestine’ badge into school and for asking permission to fundraise for children affected by the Israeli occupation. Apparently, this is a sign of radicalisation, but to most, this is merely a student expressing their opinions. Students are now not allowed to disagree with the Israeli occupation as doing so may lead to them being seen as extremists. A recent leaked prevent training presentation produced by the educational consultancy firm Marshall E-Learning, list Palestine as an issue that requires ‘careful monitoring by those involved in safeguarding.’ Whatever your opinion on the situation in Palestine, students should not be scared to hold a particular political view. In this case, Rahmaan was quoted as saying: ‘prevent creates paranoia. In school…if a senor member of staff was walking past, we would whisper to each other saying, ‘what If they’re listening to our conversation?’ That’s how paranoid it makes you.’
Students now feel they are unable to talk about certain matters at school safely, and therefore feel they need to hide their conversations. In fact, it is not just students, but I have spoken to parents that have had conversations with their 6 year old children, to ensure that while they eat in school, they should not start eating with a prayer. In Islam, we are taught to start every action in the name of God. We teach our children that before they start eating they should say a prayer in Arabic, reflecting that we are doing the action by the mercy of God. The parent reflected that they were scared a teacher would over hear the prayer, and perhaps view it as if the student is becoming radicalised. The issue is that teachers do not have an understanding of Islam, and therefore, again can easily misinterpret something as being a sign of radicalisation. In most cases, the only education a teacher has received on Islam is from the media.
Little children can now no longer practice their faith in the open, and now are taught to hide aspects of their faith. Is this what we want to teach our children? That they can’t practice their faith, as society is no longer tolerant of their faith.
Were prevent actually to be working in schools, opinions on it may be slightly more positive. Between 2006-2013 80% of referrals to Channel were rejected immediately. Teachers have admitted to being trained on how to learn about students’ opinions on controversial topics. A parent related to MCB (Muslim Council of Britain) that their child was told to create a presentation for the class on their opinion on the Syrian conflict so teachers could learn about the parents opinions on the matter. Another student was referred to social services after being asked to write about British foreign policy. The issue was that he mentioned the history of the Caliphate.
It is without doubt that social profiling is being used. 60% of referrals have been of Muslim students. This is compared with a 5% Muslim British population. The proportion of far right extremism reported has been only 10%. Is it fair to criminalise an entire group of people within Britain just because of the actions of a select few within the group? In BNP and EDL stronghold regions, teachers are outright told to only monitor ethnic minority pupils. Schools in Barnsley, South Yorkshire have adapted the training on their anti-radicalisation programme to include the statement: ‘white pupils are at low risk of radicalisation.’ This is despite the fact of their relatively recent history of far right extremism within the area. In addition to this, in other areas, figures of Islamaphobia have risen well above those of terrorism acts associated with Islam in Britain.
So what is the solution? Clearly the solution is to stop spying on Muslim students. We do not need to make Muslim students feel like outsiders in their own country. It is when they begin to feel like outsiders, that they look to other groups of people that are willing to accept them. We need to ensure schools are areas where children can speak safely about their opinions. We need to ensure students are able to talk to their teachers about questions that they may have about their religion. In this way, students have a safe platform to talk through opinions. They should be given a feeling of belonging within their school community. This is unfortunately not the case at the minute. 31% of young children believe Muslims are taking over England, alongside 26% believing Islam encourages terrorism. This needs to change.