Prevent: A curriculum issue?

Written by: Dr David Lundie | Published:
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Earlier this year, a report into multi-agency Prevent work suggested a shift in focus for this agenda in schools. Author Dr David Lundie sets out his findings

“The way you approach it is not necessarily MI5 go and knock at the door and say ‘You’re going to be referred to Channel’! It would be a school teacher who’s saying, ‘Actually, I think I could help you a little here.”

Following on from interviews with key professionals engaging with schools in multi-agency Prevent work in two cities, the above comment, at an expert focus group, illustrates a shift in perspective that many believed was necessary.

The participants, drawn from police, Home Office, local authorities, faith groups and independent consultants, shared a range of approaches they had taken to supplement the statutory Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP) training.

Where these were most successful, they foregrounded a universal, whole-curriculum approach to equip young people with skills of critical enquiry, respectful encounter with difference, and digital media literacy.

This approach seemed to have much to commend it, compared to a sometimes narrow focus on singling out “at risk” students for referral.

The research project, funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust, sought to understand the networks of support that schools could draw upon to understand and interpret their duties under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Drawing on interviews with 14 key professionals in two case study cities, the project highlighted the importance of trainers’ professional backgrounds and working knowledge of the school sector.

Multi-agency work brings its own challenges, and some participants described a “tower of Babel” of conflicting professional jargon which needed to be waded through between community safety, education, policing and social care professionals before useful discussions could even begin.

While the Act places a duty on many public bodies to engage with Prevent, schools are in a unique position in that the subject of radicalisation and extremism is also a suitable focus for the curriculum. The awkward overlap which this can create between opening up space for dialogue and perceptions of surveillance was a contentious point.

All agreed that Prevent should not close down difficult conversations, or stop young people from expressing their views without fear, a point which the Home Office statutory guidance to schools (2015) also acknowledges.

While the relationship between Prevent and the curriculum was stressed by many participants, the locus of Prevent work remains contested. Those in the policing and security sector often wanted to stress the safeguarding and referral element, and understanding how those processes work in schools was important for professionals coming to this work without a teaching background.

On the other hand, many participants were keen to stress the wider curricular benefits of nurturing critical dispositions, inquiry skills, opportunities for intercultural encounter and heightened social, emotional, political and digital literacy, beyond the narrow confines of counter-extremism. Or, as one participant in the expert focus group put it, safeguarding is a curriculum issue.

When considering appropriate training for staff and governors, school leaders would do well to consider the specifically educational experience of trainers in implementing Prevent policy. While there are excellent materials already in existence which address the topics of extremism and radicalisation, and trainers who supplement the WRAP training with extensive practical experience, getting the message across to schools is increasingly difficult.

The largest group of key professionals in the study were private consultants or representatives of third sector bodies, and many of these had prior experience working for local authorities as RE, citizenship or PSHE advisors, or for bodies such as QCA, which had previously had national oversight. With academisation, and the “bonfire of quangos” in 2010, communicating good practice to all schools across the country has become more of a challenge.

Even with good training, good practice, and a whole-curriculum focus, communicating Prevent work to parents can be a challenge. Some have argued that the whole agenda represents a “toxic brand”, and some areas, notably Manchester, have sought to substitute their own approaches.

As with many areas of governance, ethos and values, good community partnerships are essential. Among the factors which influenced many professionals’ understanding of good Prevent partnership, two critical incidents were mentioned time and again, where misunderstandings of the Prevent agenda had undermined relationships with parents and the local community:

  • “The mother who was questioned because her four year-old son had said ‘cooker bomb’ when he was talking about a cucumber.”
  • “There was this thing about living in a ‘terrorist house’. That was brought up in the training. If you ring me up, or you rang up (the Channel police practitioner), the advice that you’ll get is to go and tell the child the difference between the word terrorist and terraced!”

School leaders and school safeguarding leads understand their own local contexts, and are best placed to speak the same professional language as their staff. Clearly defining the threshold at which open debate in the classroom becomes a cause for concern about a child at risk of violent radicalisation is not an easy task.

Making clear that school safeguarding policies should not chill or silence robust but respectful debate in the classroom is an important starting point. To complicate matters further, the civic curriculum remains a deeply fragmented element of the school system. RE, PSHE and citizenship often compete for time, resource and relevance, while policy agendas change apace: community cohesion; fundamental British values; grit and resilience; and so on.

School leaders and governors would do well to consider the contribution of the whole curriculum to the full range of duties falling under the rubric of young people’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. There are roles for all curriculum subjects to address skills of critical thinking and respectful encounter, but there are particular skills which RE, citizenship and PSHE teachers can lend to the task.

In the age of “fake news” and social media echo chambers, the theme of critical digital literacy was one which many participants felt required greater attention from schools, researchers and government. As with many other aspects of the Prevent agenda, the benefits go far beyond weeding out the few potential violent extremists in our midst.

  • Dr David Lundie is senior lecturer in education at Liverpool Hope University. He is the principal investigator on British Academy/Leverhulme grant SG151930 – “The influence of securitisation on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development in England’s schools”. He can be contacted at lundied@hope.ac.uk and on Twitter @LundieEducation

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