Teachers in the UK are on the front line in preventing terrorism – James Lewis is investigating how they carry out this important duty.

The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placed schools and colleges under a statutory duty to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. This means teachers are on the front lines of the Government’s oft-criticised Prevent strategy. This places them under great pressure. They are expected to be able to identify pupils at risk of radicalisation and know how to refer them to the counter-radicalisation programme Channel.

They are also expected to challenge extremist views by promoting British values. Officially, this Prevent Duty is presented as an extension of existing safeguarding and educational responsibilities. However, from the outset, it has proved controversial.

Pressure to comply

Education can certainly play an important role in preventing radicalisation. However, teachers have expressed reservations about the new Duty, particularly the way it contradicts safeguarding legislation. Safeguarding rests on putting the welfare of the child first.

On the surface, intervening to prevent a young person becoming involved in terrorism appears to do just that. However, there is evidence of teachers, under pressure to comply with the law, referring pupils to Channel on debatable grounds. This is the central issue with the Duty.

Many teachers have attended the Government’s Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP) training. However, individuals with a likely limited knowledge of radicalisation are expected to implement a strategy with flawed assumptions, most notably an assumed relationship between extremist beliefs and terrorism.

The indicators used to identify risk are also highly contentious. The scope for wrongly identifying a pupil as a potential terrorist is thus high, even when teachers believe they are acting in the child’s best interest.

The scope for wrongly identifying a pupil as a potential terrorist is thus high, even when teachers believe they are acting in the child’s best interest

However, legally, schools and colleges must prove their compliance. Implementation of the Duty is subject to strict monitoring, and the penalties for non-compliance high, including the withdrawal of funding for maintained schools. Staff must therefore balance responsibilities under the Duty against existing obligations – not just safeguarding, but the principles of freedom of speech, and protection of trust between teacher and pupil that are so central to education.

Faced with competing pressures, it is unsurprising that there is confusion over how to respond to the Duty. My research engages with those working in this sector to understand how they deal with these pressures, and how they are implementing the Duty in their settings.

Different approaches to engagement

The increasing number of Channel referrals made by teachers shows schools and colleges are implementing the Duty. Indeed, Ofsted monitoring found high levels of compliance among Further Education Colleges. However, it also identified a variety of different approaches across those institutions visited.

Understanding why particular responses have been adopted over others is important. For example, are teachers referring pupils to Channel because they believe they are at risk of radicalisation, or because they feel pressured to show their compliance with the duty? Are they including certain topics on their curriculum to comply with the duty, or do they truly believe this will increase resilience to radicalisation?

Answering these questions will uncover important insights into the functioning of Prevent in education. It will also reveal whether the valuable knowledge of teachers is being used appropriately.

How Do Teachers Engage With PREVENT? James Lewis

Harnessing the knowledge and experience of teachers

Teachers can potentially play a big role in preventing radicalisation amongst young people. Their role should not be limited to a box-ticking exercise to demonstrate compliance with legislation. Instead, there are a number of ways that teachers can potentially use their existing knowledge to have a greater impact.

For education to play a role in combatting radicalisation, educators must have a voice. Teachers play a crucial role in promoting attributes such as critical thinking that can help to combat the impact of extremist ideologies. They are therefore well-placed to discuss the role that educators should (and shouldn’t) play in counter-radicalisation.

Through staff interviews and observations, my research attempts to include this important practitioner voice often missing from analyses of Prevent.

Teachers are well-placed to discuss the role that educators should (and shouldn’t) play in counter-radicalisation

There is a clear overlap between theories of counter-radicalisation and educational practice-based knowledge.

Analysing how teachers perceive and respond to Prevent provides an opportunity to understand how this discrete form of knowledge could inform the strategy. Teachers bring new forms of expertise to counter-terrorism and provide new perspectives on the problem. As such, not only are such actors well-placed to evaluate the validity of placing a legal obligation on teachers to combat terrorism, they are in a strong position to develop existing Government thinking on counter-radicalisation.

This study, therefore, aspires to include teachers in the bottom-up development of counter-radicalisation policy in the UK.