This week the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, launched another “new drive” to protect children from radicalisation online. Essentially, it consists of a website – Educate Against Hate – that provides resources to parents, teachers and school leaders to counteract emerging extremist views in children.
Clearly the pressure is on and at such times, politicians are obliged to come up with something. Most schools I know are grateful for any help they can get. However, Educate Against Hate has neither the depth nor the complexity to offer any meaningful support.
To be truly effective, the government’s Prevent policy needs to recognise that young people experience multiple and complex influences, and their teachers’ role is to look after their development, not look over their shoulders. Also, that those same teachers are struggling. If they are being asked to help fight extremism without destroying trust, they will need more carefully crafted weapons than this.
For a start, despite the government’s ramped-up rhetoric, it is clear that extremism does not begin (or end) in schools. Young people who feel marginalised by society, or who are economically disenfranchised, will find solace in counter-cultural groups. This phenomenon has long been apparent – just ask those who work with young people drawn into inner-city gang cultures.
Consequently, if the wider social and economic causes of radicalisation remain unacknowledged or unaddressed, schools implementing the Prevent agenda will be trying to change the views of young people who have already been indoctrinated. By the time the educationalists make the referral, the damage has already been done.
Equally, the home environment provides a child’s most intense values relationship. Their peer group, local community, schools, workplaces, wider social groups – anywhere human relationships happen – all play a part in guiding and determining how young people make sense of the world. They co-exist with other supra-community agencies such as media sources, social networking, possibly even governmental departments, that also affect how young people perceive themselves and their place in society.
However, those of us who work in schools are well aware that a child’s immediate and everyday environment has the greatest influence on how they think, behave and calibrate their lives and ambitions. And, given they are only at school for around 190 days a year, their life outside the classroom is their majority experience.
So, insisting that schools monitor pupils’ internet usage starts to sound a little less sensible, especially when we remember that a smartphone and a data signal is all that’s needed to freely access the internet.
And what of the teachers? Those I have spoken to who inspect schools where children have been exposed to radical and counter-cultural ideologies describe teachers floundering and intellectually ill-equipped to challenge extremist ideas. This week’s case of a ten-year-old Lancastrian boy’s family being visited by the police because he misspelled the word “terraced” is a case in point. It seems that teachers fearful of breaching their statutory duty to report Prevent issues can end up doing more harm than good.
If the professionals charged with delivering the antidote to radicalisation do not grasp the complexity of the political and theological ideas at stake, the Prevent strategy will flounder and pupils will lack sufficient challenge to make them doubt the intellectual superiority of the points of view they espouse.
But while teachers may be confused about the purpose of Prevent, few are confused about the purpose of education. And they know they are at odds with each other. Education should be concerned with enabling young people. Our task is to help prepare balanced and sensitive adults empowered to live fulfilling and productive lives alongside people of all backgrounds and affiliations.
The process of personal, moral, religious and social education requires trust. If young people sense that their schools have a dual role as educator and as agent of the security services, things will not play well. Complex issues require thoughtful solutions; singling out communities while apparently misusing schools’ moral purpose is not clever.
Extremist groups will not fear Mrs Morgan’s website, nor will they dread the work of schools seeking to implement the Prevent agenda. What extremists do fear is losing their grip on those who exist at the margins of society: the poor, the excluded, those whose personal circumstances make them vulnerable to the machinations of the zealot.
The answer, if there is one, is meaningful inclusion. This requires politicians to actively transform communities, build cultural diversity and fight poverty and inequity. We must all forego rhetoric and gesture politics, and invest in tangible, genuine and equal opportunities.