Teachers fear Muslim pupils are being increasingly stigmatised as a result of the government’s Prevent agenda 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 also 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.
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 the Prevent agenda after a Whitehall internal review.
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.
As a result of their findings, the team behind the study called for urgent research into how, if at all, the Prevent duty has impacted on student experiences.
According to the study, staff were concerned that Muslim students may feel singled out by the Prevent strategy. A minority warned it could backfire and 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 impacted negatively on 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 study involved in-depth interviews with 70 education professionals in 14 schools and colleges in West Yorkshire and London, and eight local authority level Prevent practitioners.
Researchers also conducted a national online survey of 225 school and college staff and discussion sessions with Muslim civil society organisations, school and college staff, education trade unions, government departments and local authorities.
“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 report, the Department for Education said the Prevent duty was about helping to keep children safe and equip 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.”