Expert view: Impact of anti-terrorism duty on schools will be 'questionable'

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From July, schools have a legal duty to prevent students from being drawn into terrorism and leaving the UK to fight abroad, but Hayley Roberts says the impact of the new duty will be questionable

From July 1, all schools will have a new duty under Section 26(1) of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Yet statutory guidance on the new duty mostly reaffirms existing requirements on schools under various other legislation and guidance. It is therefore doubtful whether the new duty will have any real impact on what schools already do.

The Act follows high-profile media coverage of teenagers who have left the UK to travel to Syria to join Islamic State militants, most notably the three London schoolgirls who left in February. Various institutions, including schools, were criticised at the time for a failure to identify the children being at risk and being slow to react and communicate with other agencies.

Sector-specific statutory guidance on the new legal duty, Prevent Duty Guidance: For England and Wales, provides an overview of the holistic and collaborative approach schools and other agencies are expected to take when discharging their duty in a bid to combat terrorism and stop teenagers being groomed by extremists. 

But how, if at all, will this new guidance lead to a change in approach by schools? The three pages of the statutory guidance that relate to schools begin by reiterating existing safeguarding duties on all schools, including those set out in Keeping Children Safe and other legislation and guidance. Being drawn into terrorism is defined to include violent and non-violent extremism, “which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit”.

The guidance warns that schools should be “mindful of their existing duties to forbid political indoctrination and secure a balanced presentation of political issues” – nothing new there. It then delves into the “meat” of the duty, setting out the specific expectations of schools, which include:

  1. Risk-assess: schools are expected to assess the risk of children being drawn into terrorism, including identifying support for extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology. This should be based on an understanding of their local area. Clearly there will be a higher risk in some parts of the country (e.g. London) than for others (e.g. Cornwall) and those in high-risk areas are presumably expected to do more.

  2. Have robust safeguarding policies in place to identify children at risk and the most appropriate referral procedure.

  3. Establish clear protocols for ensuring that any visiting speakers are suitable and appropriately supervised.

  4. Ensure safeguarding arrangements take into account policies/procedures of the Local Safeguarding Children Board.

  5. Staff training to give them knowledge and confidence to identify children at risk of being drawn into terrorism, to challenge extremist ideas and to know where and how to refer children and young people for further help.

  6. Ensure appropriate levels of filtering for internet access.

  7. Maintain appropriate records to show compliance with responsibilities and provide reports where requested.

Schools should already meet these expectations. Given that schools are already obliged to promote British values and promote mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, it is difficult to see how this new legal duty will change or add to what schools already do – particularly in light of the lessons learned from the national coverage of the Trojan Horse affair.

So what are the sanctions schools face should they fail to comply with the duty? The guidance confirms that a failure to comply with the duty could lead to the Prevent Oversight Board recommending to the secretary of state that he issues a direction to ensure the implementation and delivery of the Prevent duty. This soft sanction would only be used after other options for engagement and improvement had been exhausted. Schools are more likely to be concerned with the fact that failing to meet these expectations (and thus failing to discharge their safeguarding duties) puts them at risk of intervention – which would be the case regardless of whether this new duty was in force or not.

Ofsted already has regard to the approach to keep pupils safe from dangers of radicalisation and extremism. Given that schools will, for the most part, already comply with the duty, sanctions under the new Act are limited, and Ofsted’s role remains unchanged, the impact the new duty will have on schools is questionable.

  • Hayley Roberts is an education lawyer at Browne Jacobson.


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