The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Suruthi Bala

Radicalisation: thinking beyond Prevent

Suruthi Bala considers the new legal duties on schools in line with the Prevent duty and examines the errors of ‘BRIT’ – a hidden counter-terrorism project used in primary schools.

There is no denying that the exploitation and radicalisation of children and young people is a real and significant challenge for our society and our schools.

When children as young as 15 are being drawn to abandon their families and flee to Syria, it is often sadly their school that finds itself splashed across the front pages.

In light of this, and the legal duty placed on schools by the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’, this issue has quickly elevated to become the number one safeguarding concern for many schools.

However, to safely tackle the challenges posed by this new and unfamiliar threat, society and schools must proceed with caution. Hasty and poorly-conceived initiatives may inevitably do more harm than good.

What does the Prevent duty guidance say?

In order for a school to fulfil its statutory duties under this official (and often controversial) strategy, all staff must be able to identify children who may be vulnerable to radicalisation (including non-violent extremism), and know what to do when they are identified.

It requires schools to incorporate this unfamiliar threat into their wider safeguarding practices and protect children from radicalisation as they would from neglect, sexual exploitation or gangs.

The legal requirements are clear, the statutory guidance and supplementary information is available… so what’s the problem? Perhaps it is because Prevent is built on the notion that ‘ideology is a central factor in the radicalisation process’, and therefore ‘counter-ideological’ work is the best response.

Enter Prevent and the introduction of British values into our schools

When our counter-terrorism policies cite that the causes of radicalisation are due to ‘psychological vulnerabilities’ and therefore those who could be radicalised must at some point have exhibited these vulnerabilities, it can naturally lead to a system in which we, rightly or wrongly, are rigorously monitoring children and young people.

However, when these programmes for identification go wrong they can lead to the creation of yet further barriers within society, alienation of certain ethnic groups and may in fact increase the likelihood of extremist thinking.

The BRIT project

An example of a hidden counter-terrorism project in primary schools known as ‘Building Resilience through Integration and Trust’ or ‘BRIT’ was recently evaluated by the think tank Claystone.

Their findings offer an eye-opening insight into the misuse of Prevent, the misidentification of children and the resulting aftermath.

The BRIT project used a questionnaire on identity, community, religious and political beliefs to identify children vulnerable to the risk of radicalisation and screen for potential extremist ideology. Seven children in year 5 were secretly identified by the BRIT project as vulnerable to radicalisation and selected for focused intervention, but their parents were not informed.

Children from Muslim backgrounds were the key focus of the BRIT project which constitutes a form of ethnic profiling. The design of the BRIT project was built on models of radicalisation which lack substantial evidence and have been widely discredited.

The premise was that struggles over identity and a lack of contact with other ethnic and religious groups is a psychological vulnerability that makes extremism more likely.

The issues raised by the BRIT project are not unique; projects across the country relying on the same flawed approach are being implemented under the new statutory duty on schools.

In reality such initiatives result in young children from Muslim backgrounds being identified as suspicious on the basis of vague criteria, such as ‘having an identity conflict’, which has no demonstrated link to terrorism.

The problem is that while schools have been given a clear legal duty with Prevent they lack any precise guidelines on how to appropriately identify children at risk of radicalisation.

This leaves them to continue to rely on their own individual judgements and perceptions, with a danger that individual decision-making on whether a child is a potential risk can be clouded by an individual’s Islamophobic prejudices or misconceptions.

Overcoming danger

Relying on individual judgements can seem rocky and an unstable solution. However, schools do have one obvious weapon – community. No teacher has to make a decision on their own. 

One essential first step for any school is talking about this issue and figuring out as a community what your values and beliefs are. Your school community doesn’t just exist in the staffroom – talk to pupils and parents too. Enabling discussion in a safe environment, for pupils and for staff, means children and young people won’t be scared of expressing opinions and teachers won’t feel the need to be secretive and act alone.



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