The NUT two weeks ago expressed concerns regarding new legislation designed to support and protect vulnerable students from the growing threat of radicalisation. Working to prevent extremism across the country I’ve come across phrases such as ‘spying’, ‘Muslim scapegoating’ and ‘criminalising pupils’. These are some of the fear mongering tactics often used quite deliberately by those who have no interest in challenging extremism. The NUT however needs to be objective and take note of the hundreds of teachers to whom I have delivered preventing extremism training. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and once the myths and misconceptions have been put to one side, schools have recognised this is another strand of the work they already do – safeguarding our most vulnerable children.
Inspire has tirelessly been working with Muslim parents about the threat from extremists who prey on their children. Women that we have spoken to across the country through our ‘Making a Stand’ campaign are looking to work together with schools to help protect their children. Mothers have told us they expect teachers to share concerns with them, yet it would appear the NUT are nervous of what they inaccurately refer to as scapegoating Muslim children, rather than actually address the very real concerns that women are telling us they are worried about.
Such misconceptions, inaccuracies and falsehoods about what Prevent is about will only result in failing to protect the very children who need the most protection. The idea that schools are expected to contact the police over the discussion of ideas is based on falsehood. The steps needed to be taken are far more simple. Take the real life case of Laila; a high achieving 6th form student. Laila had always wished to be an engineer. Within a short space of time she began to disengage from her lessons. She also started to distance herself from her friends. Upon noticing this change in behaviour, her tutor spoke to her friends who informed him that Laila felt that a “western secular education would not guarantee her a place in heaven” and that an Islamic education was all she was obliged to achieve.
The school shared the concern with her parents who were relieved to be able to share their worries, and with their support a local female Islamic theologian was approached to mentor Laila and gently push back against the extremist interpretations of faith she had been exposed to on the internet.
The school did not call, or feel the need to even think about calling the police. Why should they? No crime had been committed but someone like Laila would have been more vulnerable to the ideology of extremists. The school however recognised this and Laila was given the support she needed. Once concerns are shared with teachers and parents are informed, a support scheme is often put in place including one to one counselling with an Imam and a mentor from the community. The multi-agency safeguarding panel ‘Channel’ chaired by the local authority can also intervene to provide support should the school’s own referral pathways be ineffective. Early intervention has shown how students did not go on to the path of criminality. Had schools not intervened with the support of the parents, it may have been a different story – including that of Laila.
The NUT has expressed the concern that young people will not openly express their views in the classroom. Open debate must be encouraged in class. The reality is that there are bigots – whether Islamist or far right – that are openly sowing the seeds of hatred and disunity within communities. Schools are the ideal place to provide platforms for debate and discussion and I would expect schools to openly challenge hatred spewed by anyone espousing supremacy. Indeed, in some areas there are referral of young people vulnerable to far right extremism.
Preventing extremism is about safeguarding; it is a safety net and that safety net is stronger if we all play our part. Schools engaging with young people would not hesitate to share a concern if they felt there was the potential risk of a child being sexually exploited, groomed online, bullied, at risk of FGM or was at risk of falling into gun or knife crime. We would share the concern and share the risk following the referrals pathways that already exist and are established in every school with designated child protection or safeguarding leads. Current legislation regarding radicalisation dictates that schools follow exactly the same procedure with a proportionate response. Whilst the risk is rare, it is not one we can ignore. Just last week we have heard of two more young men over the Easter holidays who have left the UK to join ISIS, leaving behind devastated parents, family and communities. This is no longer something that can be left at the door of the police and security services. Teachers have the skills to recognise vulnerable individuals and, working with parents, are integral to the success of protecting them from extremism. They can help a young person make a decision to not carry on down a path from which there may be no return. In order to recognise the threat though, they need to separate myths from hysteria and fear mongering.