Philip Britton: It’s time to cure Prevent

Sunday Times, 06.12.15, the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, Prevent, is stifling healthy discussion, fears HMC member Philip Britton, headmaster of leading independent Bolton School Boys' Division and vice president (education) of the Institute of Physics.

As headmaster of a boys’ school in one of Britain’s most multicultural cities, radicalisation is definitely on my radar and I recognise the crucial role of schools in teaching tolerance and mutual respect. But sadly, the government’s new Prevent strategy seems to be stifling the very things that will help prevent terrorism: positive challenge and healthy discussion.

Since July, schools have had a duty to engage with the Prevent strategy, looking for early signs of radicalisation and reporting concerns to the police. Systems have been implemented, policies written and good has undoubtedly been done – the appalling consequences of young people being radicalised will in some cases have been avoided.

But six months on, now is the moment to take stock. Schools are busy places, with many roles to play, and it is entirely possible that we will miss the moment for implementing long-term change unless we tackle this now.

The problem is that Prevent tells young people all about what not to do. What they need is for the adults around them, within their faith and within their schools, to help them understand what they should be doing.

For example, teachers I speak to worry about falling foul of Prevent by saying something that will be deemed wrong during discussions of sensitive issues of race and religion. The fear around using the correct language is now significant, so the cautious approach is not to discuss anything at all.

Why does this need to change? Because living a life of faith in modern society is difficult for anyone of whatever religion. It is tempting to separate, to live a parallel life and not to engage. It is also tempting to imagine that engagement means shaping society to fit you. Neither is right.

France’s minister for the economy, Emmanuel Macron, spoke last week of the exclusion of young Muslims. He contended that they “have no more faith in society”. If this is true, it would be tempting to blame society; no one should be excluded and action must be taken to avoid it. But the crucial point is that young Muslims must learn not to separate off and exclude themselves, but to choose instead to live a life of faith within society, not alongside society.

Inclusion and exclusion are not just things that happen to you; it is essential that you engage, not with a view to changing or shaping society to fit, but to find your place within it.

So what can our schools do to make Prevent work and push for reform?

These young Muslims are in our schools and it is there that they can be equipped, through increased and more open debate and learning that fosters greater mutual understanding. This, of course, needs to happen alongside some clear leadership from adults in the faith communities.

At Bolton School, our aim is to “prepare young people to make a difference for good”. Next term, working with the Bolton Council of Mosques, we will hold a conference for all local schools aimed at helping young people of all faiths, and especially young Muslims, to meet this challenge.

The socialisation that happens in schools should help young people take responsibility to fit into society as they find it. If young people at my school and others are to make a difference for good, then they need to be shown strong positive role models at school, at home and in the mosque on how to do this, and be given advice on how to live a life confident in their faith within and accepting of wider society.

Prevent is not going to achieve this. It has all the signs of reactionary policy, treating symptoms not causes and creating fear of saying the wrong thing. It must fall to teachers, parents and faith leaders to guide the young more effectively in this dilemma rather than leave them with the problem.

Philip Britton MBE is headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division and vice president (education) of the Institute of Physics

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