Prevent: Counter-Radicalisation and Education
In late October, Kate McNeil, PaCCS Communications Officer, sat down with Professor Paul Thomas, Associate Dean-Research, School of Education and Professional Development and member of the the Huddersfield Centre for Research in Education to discuss Prevent, the UK’s counter-radicalisation program.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.
Would you mind getting started by chatting about your transition from youth work to academia, and your research interests?
Professor Paul Thomas: Community cohesion, which has been what we’ve called it in the UK since 2001, is very much of interest to me. I used to work for a youth work organisation, and I initially transitioned to academia to teach qualification courses in youth and community work. Alongside that, I started researching youth workers’ responses to multiculturalism and youth racial tensions. I became interested in how young people experience racial tensions and mutual antagonisms, as well as how practitioners intervene, and what they attempt to achieve when conducting community and anti-prejudice work.
How did you become interested in Prevent?
When the UK started the Prevent strategy, youth work rather than schools was the main avenue for the program’s implementation. Money was provided to local authorities, who developed community-based youth activities. I became involved in researching Prevent implementation by local authority partners and assisting with value-ads. Out of that, I developed an interest in Prevent and the role of practitioners in preventing violent extremism activity in young people.
How do you think this space has evolved over the time period in which you’ve been working in it?
There have been two distinct phases to the Prevent Program, and the program’s content and priorities have both shifted.
From 2006 until the Prevent Review in 2011, the program was focused on giving money to local authorities and was explicitly focused on working with young Muslims.
From there, Prevent has evolved in different directions. Community-based work has been significantly reduced, and the focus now is on developing systems for identifying and intervening with individuals who seem to be vulnerable to radicalisation. The focus now is on the whole public sector, and the formal education sector from early years settings through to university has become the forefront of prevent work. Examples of those changes would be the introduction of the Channel scheme, and the introduction of the Prevent duty in 2015.
After the Prevent duty was introduced, I worked with colleagues from Coventry and Durham Universities to conduct the first national study examining how staff in English schools and colleges understood and implemented this duty.
What are some of the pros and cons of the evolutions in the program? Has the program improved through these shifts in strategy and priorities?
Some of the developments have been problematic. In the Western world, most countries use community-based resilience programming in their counter-extremism efforts. Meanwhile, Britain has moved too far away from that kind of resilience-building work between and within communities. One of the reasons for this is that Britain wasn’t convinced of the impact or value-for-money of community-based programs, but that’s a generic problem involved in prevention work. Compounding that was that over the last few years we’ve had governments who were dubious when it came to partnerships with Muslim community groups, who had been the historic partners in the first phase of Prevent. I think that’s problematic, because too many British Muslims now feel that Prevent is being done to them, rather than with them. We need more partnership and involvement with community groups, especially at a time when hundreds of young British Muslims have travelled to places like Syria and gravely damaging their own lives and those of their families.
With that said, the expansion of the program’s focus to all forms of violent extremism – including far right and neo Nazi extremism – rather than focusing solely on Muslims or Al Qaeda or ISIS-inspired extremism has been positive. Prevent now intervenes with people of all backgrounds and all kinds of communities, which is a positive development because the original program stigmatised and othered Muslim communities, giving Prevent a toxic image.
As the program’s focus has broadened, have those implementing Prevent been equipped with the appropriate knowledge and tools to respond to a diverse variety of types of extremism?
The educationalists we spoke with in our research were clear that Prevent was concerned with far right and other types of extremism as well as Islamist-inspired extremism, and in many of our research settings far right extremism was a much more tangible threat than Islamist-inspired extremism. The increase in far-right extremism has also made many of the teachers we researched re-think how they teach aspects of their curriculum related to community cohesion, anti-racism and equality.
The government’s educating tool is the Educate Against Hate website, however there are different views about how helpful that tool is. Overall, there is a constant battle about whether there is enough training material available, and our research has indicated that educators are not happy with the level of curriculum materials and training support provided about all types of extremism.
Are educators happy with other aspects of the Prevent program, such as the focus on fundamental British values?
The expectation there is that schools and colleges promote ‘fundamental’ ‘British’ values, teaching students about things like free speech. Our research shows that teachers were entirely happy teaching about the values of tolerance, respect and democracy, because they already do that. Educators are accustomed to working with school values, community values, and universal values in their educational setting. However, they were not happy about the words ‘fundamental’ or ‘British’, because they were not seen as helpful terms.
How has the evolution of Prevent taken into account the ways in which the role of the internet in society has changed over the course of the program’s history?
In education, internet access is quite supervised, and there’s a really strong focus on what students are engaging with in and out of educational settings. In educational settings, there are blocks and filters and monitoring of what’s being searched for. That educational side came long before Prevent, because internet safety, including anti-extremism education, would be considered safeguarding education.
Until coming across a recent Guardian article on Prevent, I had been unaware of the extent to which the program’s efforts focused on minors. What are the reasons that underlie that, and is this focus appropriate?
Prevent scaled up substantially with the introduction of the Prevent duty in 2015. More than a million state professionals and public sector workers, including everyone who works in the NHS, schools, and colleges has been trained in Prevent. Alongside this, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of Prevent referrals, with the largest proportion of referrals involving children and young people referred from the education sector. We don’t know whether that proportion of referrals reflects the nature of the threat of extremist radicalisation in society, or whether it is a function of having trained so many people in the education sector to be alert to these subjects.
We did see a lot of inappropriate referrals, including many from education, in the first few years after the Prevent Duty was introduced. Some of the most egregious examples, such as a 4-year-old Muslim boy in a Luton nursery who was referred after pronouncing ‘cucumber’ as ‘cooker bomber’ reach the papers. Those individual cases have given many people the impression that those stories are typical examples of the impact of the program upon children and their families.
We carried out research in English schools and colleges to get a better sense of how representative those egregious individual cases are, and we found much less opposition to Prevent from professionals in schools and colleges than we expected. Trade unions are opposed to Prevent, but their membership doesn’t reflect that.
Educators have accepted the government’s paradigm that Prevent is a form of safeguarding, and safeguarding has very established roots in education. Educators see parallels between radicalisation and extremism and other vulnerabilities such as gang involvement, sexual exploitation, and drug involvement. Moreover, they accept that the existing safeguarding mechanisms are appropriate to deal with concerns. Consequently, it’s not surprising that a large proportion of Prevent referrals come from these educational settings which have well developed safeguarding systems. However, there are areas where it gets complicated.
What are the dilemmas involved in a program geared towards counter-extremism efforts focused on young people?
One dilemma is that that a large proportion of the referrals to Prevent remain children and young people of Muslim background, which some critics see as prima facie evidence of an Islamophobic focus within the policy. However, others, including many within Muslim communities, say that this proportion reflects the reality of the terror threat because of the impacts of Syria and people attempting to travel there or being influenced by events there.
Another dilemma is that there is a very big attrition rate in those referred, particularly among those referred from the education sector. Informal referrals – where schools ring up the local authority’s Prevent coordinator to talk through concerns, aren’t included in this. Even when people are referred formally, there’s quite a large attrition rate, where there is no further action for those involved. Of the proportion that go to the Channel Panel, a local authority multi-agency body, many are diverted into other forms of intervention or there are no further actions. This high attrition rate may lead some to see the referral rate as too high as well.
However, education professionals didn’t think the system was heavy-handed or appropriate, because only a small proportion of referrals in most forms of safeguarding multiagency boards lead to an intervention in a family’s life, which means that this form of safeguarding is consistent with others. Only ten percent of Prevent referrals being acted upon is a success in educators’ eyes, not a failure. They see these proportions as proportionate, and the attrition rates as justifiable, however, that is a paradigm-specific view.
For a young person who has been referred to Prevent, what does it look like from the child’s end to end up in that system, and what are the consequences for children of referrals which do not lead to actions?
This is where we start to get into some of the real operational dilemmas and concerns about Prevent. There are campaign groups who advocate on behalf of people who feel they were inappropriately referred to Prevent. And some critics allege that quite often children are referred and don’t know it.
People who work with Prevent say that, like any other safeguarding referral, referral should only come after family and carers have been spoken with, and that the family should be aware that there has been a referral. However, we don’t know enough about Prevent’s operations to know whether that’s true in all cases, or only some.
We also don’t know, especially for referees who don’t end up in the Channel system, what happens to Prevent records. There is a real lack of clarity about whether those records are expunged or held. If they are held, we don’t know who holds them, or how long they are held for. If you’re referred to Channel at 15 and there’s no further action, what happens if you later apply to join the police or work a job, let’s say at a bank, that requires background checks. We don’t know whether the Prevent referral will show up in that security screening. So, there are concerns about data and transparency that the current Prevent review needs to clarify and explain to the public.
What else would you like to practitioners and policy makers working on countering extremism with British youth to know, or be thinking about?
We’re not focusing enough on the curriculum input in Prevent’s education program, and we need to do more work against hatred. We need better curriculum support and training for educators, including building educator confidence to get into open debates and air difficult issues. Research evidence shows you need to create a space in which young people can openly talk about strong, extremist, or prejudiced feelings, where you can respect them while getting into a dialogue that helps youth interrogate their ideas and think about them in a more complex way. Educators need to be supported in creating those spaces.
You also can’t separate those conversations from building community cohesion in terms of how young people of different backgrounds relate to each other. It’s important for educators to bring young people from different areas and communities together so that they have a chance to break through the fears and prejudices they may have about other communities. We need to help young people learn to deal with complexity and diversity.
Finally, would you mind telling our readers about one thing you’re working on now?
I’ve just completed a study with colleagues focused on community reporting and intimates – close friends or family members – who are getting involved in extremism. Evidence has suggested that the families or partners of people who become terrorists sense something about them, but don’t know what they are seeing or what to do with the information, which is a gap in our prevention work at the moment. We were looking at whether individuals would share concerns with the authorities if a loved one was getting involved in extremism. We learned that people would want to share with authorities, but they need all kinds of help and support to do so.
We’re now replicating that study in the US and Canada.
Are you also looking at tools which might help support individuals considering contacting authorities?
Yes we are. The initial pilot study was conducted by my collaborator in Australia, and New South Wales has an independent help website which offers support and doesn’t report site visits to the police. Rather, it’s designed as a place for family members to go seek help in making decisions about whether to go report.
Since the beginning of the UK study, we’ve been talking to the national police, and we hope that our findings will help UK policymakers and law enforcement to develop a public education campaign aimed at helping people who are concerned about someone close to them.