THE recent wave of terror attacks in Britain has intensified the focus on educational measures designed to halt the development of extremism. The two-year-old strategy known as the “Prevent duty” – which obliges schools and colleges to play a pro-active role – has come in for criticism, with claims that it can be counter-productive and that cases of individuals being drawn into terrorism are unlikely to be picked up.
Newly-issued research from the University of Huddersfield’s Professor Paul Thomas, with colleagues in Durham and Coventry, has identified flaws, including concerns that the Prevent duty increases the stigmatisation of Muslim students and that the focus on “fundamental British values” is misguided.
But they also discovered that teachers are largely confident about their ability to implement the Prevent duty and there are few signs that it has shut down free speech in schools and colleges. It has often proved possible to use the Prevent duty as a way to strengthen work around racism, prejudice and inequality.
“The debate about the strategy is very polarised,” said Professor Thomas. “Critics are concerned that Prevent is Islamophobic and a negative thing per se. But we hope we are offering evidence for a more sophisticated, more nuanced debate.”
With Dr Joel Busher, of Coventry University and Tufyal Choudhury of Durham University, Professor Thomas carried out in-depth interviews with 70 education professionals across 14 schools and colleges in West Yorkshire and London. They also spoke to eight Prevent practitioners working in different local authority areas to support schools and colleges.
The study also included a national online survey of 225 school and college staff; and a series of feedback and discussion sessions with Muslim civil society organisations, school and college staff, educational trade unions, government departments and local authorities.
The three academics have now analysed the findings and issued a report, timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the Prevent duty.
The study found evidence that the duty might be affecting trust between staff and their pupils by making Muslim students feel “singled out”, damaging their willingness to share concerns about extremism.
Also, a minority of education professionals argued that the duty might be counter-productive, increasing feelings of marginalisation among of Muslim students.
The research also reported discomfort among school and college staff about what some saw as the Prevent duty’s “ill-conceived” focus on “British values”.
“I don’t think the values themselves are problematic,” said Professor Thomas. “But are they distinctly British? A lot of the schools and colleges already had a charter of values and the British label for some of our respondents just felt very unnecessary.”
The study also reports positive findings. For example, there no widespread resistance or opposition to the Prevent duty, with staff confidence bolstered by the feeling that it is an extension of their existing safeguarding responsibilities.
Also, there is little evidence that education professionals think the duty has had a chilling effect on free speech in schools and colleges, with substantial efforts made by staff to pre-empt negative side-effects by reinvigorating initiatives such as debating clubs and promoting Prevent-related discussion in classrooms.
Paul Thomas is Professor of Youth and Policy at the University of Huddersfield’s School of Education and Professional Development and a long-time researcher of the overall Prevent strategy, created by the Labour government in 2003. Its remit was widened by the coalition government in 2011.
The Prevent duty was issued in June, 2015, and requires that schools and colleges play an important role in preventing students joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities.
They are urged to refer any suspicions about students to a local Prevent body before it is decided if further action needs to be taken.
The Government document on the Prevent duty also that states: “Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
Professor Thomas commented that: “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.”
He added: “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.
“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.
“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.”