Like many schools, mine recently trained its staff on implementing the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy. As he left that house to go to school that day, one of my colleagues, non-coincidentally a Muslim, was stopped by his wife as he finished his toast.
“Don’t you dare say a word today.”
Can you blame her? For that matter can you blame him, for keeping silent?
I can imagine what’s going through their heads: if I speak up now, next thing I know my bags are halfway to Florida and I’m stuck at the UK Border.
The brand of “Prevent” is a byword for spying in many sections of society. That’s how it’s seen, and that’s how it always will be. Children are told at home by fearful parents to keep silent on controversial issues of all kinds. Self-censorship is rampant. Reassurance is little use.
The police officer who delivered our training tried to assure us that nobody was going to be “added to a register”, and I’m sure he said it in good faith, the damage of the policy itself has been done.
In part this is because of the policy’s toxic reputation. As a strategy it involves reporting children for suspected extremist views. The language of “pre-criminal space” is used to describe this. 80 per cent of these referrals are rejected, and 90 per cent are of Muslims. Each of these groundless referrals, if handled badly, sends a message: speak unwisely, naively or too honestly, and if you look a certain way, you will be reported to the authorities.
Handling this matter in private is like delivering sex education in private, in a back room, because a child draws obscene graffiti on their book.
On the day of our training, the only people who questioned or raised concerns about the strategy we were being trained to implement were white. Some in the profession have claimed that they “have no problem raising these issues with their classes”. Respectfully, I call this unexamined privilege.
This week in Brighton my union, the NUT, unanimously decided to implore the government to reconsider its Prevent strategy.
When we did this, we did it in the knowledge that our views would be misinterpreted and misrepresented. This began immediately. In the un-moderated wilds of social media, people accused us of being terrorist sympathisers and protecting extremists.
Many also wondered why, when faced with other threats such as he “forced academies” policy, we decided to pick another fight.
The answer is because they are the same fight. An alternative to Prevent, like an alternative to forced academisation, is needed to protect education and our children.
The reason is simple: evidence is emerging that Prevent, as many of us have feared for some time, plays directly into the hands of those who would prey on our young people.
Terrorists rely on feelings of alienation and isolation from our society. It is their most potent recruiting tool. If they can convince the young people we educate that they are outsiders, their work becomes easy. Why help them?
David Anderson QC, the UK terror watchdog, has raised serious concerns about the strategy that we share. He has called it “perverse” that Prevent has become itself a huge source of grievance in many quarters.
An immediate review of the policy would be an easy way for the government to demonstrate that it is interested in addressing these grievances. They must not let pride prevent such a review.
Rob Price is a teacher in a central London school
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