This article reflects on the “Prevent Duty” Strategy launched in July 2015 in the UK. Its goal was the interaction between teachers, school staff members and students in order to detect early forms of religious radicalism and to help to prevent them. However, as the article reflects, a recent study published by the Universtiy of Conventry (based on this programme’s experience during the last two years) concludes that prevention exercises tend to rely on an exaggerate exaltation of “British values”, which might lead to the stigmatisation and alienation of Muslim students.
Teachers fear Muslim pupils are being increasingly stigmatised as a result of the government’s Prevent strategy in schools and colleges, potentially making them reluctant to share concerns about extremism, according to research.
School and college staff who were surveyed for the study by Coventry, Durham and Huddersfield universities also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the strategy, warning that genuine cases of students being drawn into terrorism were unlikely to be picked up.
They warned that the Prevent duty, introduced two years ago as part of the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy, is undermining efforts to build an inclusive environment in schools and colleges for students from diverse backgrounds.
Discrimination or duty?
The lead investigator, Dr Joel Busher from Coventry University’s centre for trust, peace and social relations, said: “Approaching Prevent as part of safeguarding appears largely to have been accepted by schools and colleges and has helped to foster fairly widespread confidence about the duty.
“However, linking the duty to the promotion of ‘fundamental British values’ – and in particular the pressure on schools and colleges to emphasise the ‘Britishness’ of these values – is often seen as more problematic.
“We heard about fears that this element is both hampering effective curriculum work around shared values and democratic citizenship, and creating uncertainty about the focus of the Prevent duty.”
The study comes as the government prepares to announce an expansion of Prevent after a Whitehall internal review.
The study on Prevention’s results
Though small-scale, the universities’ study provides a valuable insight into the views of those responsible for implementing the duty in schools and colleges, and the impact it may be having on their students.
According to the study, staff were concerned that Muslim students may feel singled out by the Prevent strategy.
As a result of their findings, the team behind the study called for urgent research into how, if at all, the Prevent duty has affected student experiences.
According to the study, staff were concerned that Muslim students may feel singled out by the Prevent strategy. A minority warned that it could backfire and that, rather than preventing vulnerable young people from being drawn into terrorism, it risked fuelling a sense of being marginalised by state and society among Muslims.
Prevent has been widely criticised since it came into force in July 2015, for the first time placing a legal responsibility on schools and colleges to play their role in preventing students joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities.
They are required to refer any concerns about students to a local Prevent body, which then decides if further action needs to be taken. They are also expected to build resilience against extremism by promoting “fundamental British values”.
On the positive side, the study found that schools and colleges felt largely confident about implementing the Prevent duty as part of their safeguarding duties. It failed to identify widespread resistance to the scheme and, despite earlier fears, found little evidence that it had limited free speech, thanks to efforts by staff to set up debating clubs and encourage Prevent-related discussion in classrooms.
But many of those who took part expressed concern about what they described as an ill-conceived link between Prevent and the promotion of “fundamental British values”, which they said undermined efforts to promote shared values.
Busher said: “Widespread and sometimes acute concerns about possible feelings of stigmatisation among Muslim students highlight an urgent need for systematic evaluation of how, if at all, the Prevent duty has impacted on student experiences.”
The basis of the analysis
The study involved in-depth interviews with 70 education professionals in 14 schools and colleges in West Yorkshire and London, and eight Prevent practitioners at local authority level.
Researchers also conducted a national online survey of 225 school and college staff and discussion sessions with Muslim organisations, school and college staff, education trade unions, government departments and local authorities.
But many of those who took part expressed concern about what they described as an ill-conceived link between Prevent and the promotion of “fundamental British values”
“It is likely to be some years before we are able to truly assess the impact of the Prevent duty and further research is needed,” said Busher. “In the meantime, we hope that this research can serve as a stimulus for constructive yet critical discussion about what the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges.”
Responding to the study, University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: “This report again raises the issue of increased stigmatisation of Muslim students and the bizarre focus on ‘British values’. There is a risk that closing down debate drives a subject underground, and makes people less likely to speak up or out.
“Some of the subjects up for debate may be difficult ones, but shying away from them is no way to deal with any issue. The government could lead by example and commission an independent report into the impact and effectiveness of Prevent in schools, colleges and universities.”
The Department for Education said the Prevent duty was about helping to keep children safe and equipping them with the knowledge to question extremist and radical views. “This report shows that not only is there widespread understanding of this but schools and colleges are confident about how to deliver it in the classroom.
“Schools and colleges also agree the suggestion Prevent shuts down debate or discussion of controversial issues is simply not the case. We will continue to help schools and colleges with the Prevent duty by providing guidance, support and teaching resources through our Educate Against Hate website.”
Source: The Guardian