Image: Jan H. Andersen

Nick O’Brien on how the Prevent strategy has already started to make our schools places where students are afraid to discuss important and topical issues

Upon returning to work this September many people working in Schools, Colleges and Universities will spend time being told about their new responsibilities under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, which was given Royal Assent in February and came into force in July this year. For teachers in some areas of the country this will be nothing new. The startling case of a schoolboy who was accused of holding “radical and terrorist-like” views by the police after taking leaflets into his school promoting a boycott of Israel because of the situation in Gaza has led many teachers, students and parents to question the expansion of the Government’s Prevent Strategy in schools. The boy was told that the Free Palestine badges he was wearing were extremist and he was warned against speaking about Palestine with his friends.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Tell MAMA, an organisation set up to record anti-Muslim hate crime received a report last year of police going into schools to say that if their students went to a demonstration about the bombing of Gaza they should be “kept an eye on”.  Given the backdrop of these two cases, it’s hardly surprising that a third of British Muslims feel that they are “under suspicion”. It’s clear that the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, launched in February will take state-driven Islamophobia to a new level.

Schools are the main target for Prevent, but all public bodies including colleges, universities and even cultural events will be touched by this legislation.  I should first of all be very clear that everyone working with young people should take the unique responsbility they have in supporting vulnerable young people extremely seriously and it’s true that schools are often best placed to pick up on concerns around young people.  There is of course always a clear duty to report when adults beliebe that children are being groomed by terrorists or in danger of radicalisation, just as we would if they were being groomed by sexual predators. What needs further discussion and monitoring is the clear extension of normal safeguarding measures to also report young people who display “non-violent extremism”.

According to the legislation, non-violent extremism refers to young people that can “Identify grievances to which terrorist organisations can claim to have a solution”. Many schools in Britain, including my own had a period of reflection and a minute’s silence for the atrocity on the beach in Tunisia, which was without question a vile and reactionary crime. I believe that schools should respond to incidents like this and have open discussion about current affairs. Whilst reflecting on that day however, I wondered whether as many schools would hold a minute’s silence for the four boys from the same family killed playing football and hide and seek on a beach in Gaza a year before.  Surely this was also a vile, reactionary crime, yet as an incident to which terrorist organisations could potentially “claim to have a solution”, surely this it itself could get you in trouble. It is clear that there is a massive degree of hypocrisy on display here.

Two years ago, schools joined people around the country in remembering Lee Rigby after his tragic murder in 2013. Again, an important and topical issue fit to be discussed in schools. But did so many people remember Muhammed Saleem, an 82 year old Muslim pensioner slain by a Ukranian far right extremist a few months later? Or for that matter if young people identifed and questioned whether the roots of Lee Rigby attack were to do with war could they be investigated as potentially supporting an extremist cause? This is after all what the murderers were seen shouting into the TV cameras just after it happened.  Would that be again, a grievance to which terrorist organisations could claim to have an answer?  Indeed students at one school in London said recently with a classroom discussion that “we can’t talk about Charlie Hebdo – we will be put on a register”.

But the greatest level of hypocrisy has to have come from Education Secretary herself, Nicky Morgan, who has stated that homophobic views could be a sign of extremism. As an out gay teacher at my school, I appreciate a tough line on these issues but can’t get past the fact that it seems like different standards are being applied to different groups when she voted against Equal Marriage in Parliament.

I believe that Prevent will not work and is likely only to make the situation worse.  It is not the  identification of grievance that could lead to terrorism, it is the suppression of it. Grievance is not a vehicle of extremism, grievance being allowed to fester without being tackled is a far more dangerous issue  Every piece of advice around Child Protection suggests that schools need to be open places where discussion happens openly and young people feel confident about disclosing things.

Education must be about free expression and discussion. Views should be shared and debated. It is not illegitimate to suggest that the terror attacks in Paris had their roots in wars launched by our own government – saying that does not in any way suggest that was the only reason or excuse those who carried out the massacre.  The classroom should be the place where these discussions happen safely and where some views can be questioned and tackled by teachers and other students.  The precious Student Teacher relationship relies on trust, not just respect and Prevent has the potential to cause massive divisions between people who work in schools and the community they are part of.

But just as Prevent causes massive issues it can also build resistance.  NUT Conference passed some great legislation on it at Conference in Harrogate this year and communities have been fighting back in schools. In one London school a letter that was sent out by the council, believed by some in the community to be Islamophobic was retracted after pressure from families.  A group of academics have also published an open letter condeming the legislation.  In it they say:

“Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces”.

We need support the struggle against the demonisation of the Muslim Community as well as calling for an end to the cycle of war our leaders seem to constantly crave.  Schools must remain open and vibrant places that reflect and work with the communities that they are part of.

Nick O’Brien

Nick O'Brien is a teacher and LGBT activist in the NUT. He is a founder member of Norwich Pride, one of the few remaining grassroots Pride events in the country and active locally and nationally in Stop the War and the People's Assembly. Nick also works to train teachers on issues around inclusion and equality and is a mental health champion. He is a proud Norwich City fan and a founder member of the Proud Canaries, a group set up to combat homophobia in football and remember Justin Fashanu, the only ever out gay footballer in this country.

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