The following I wrote for a discussion at the University of Cambridge, Senate House 9 May 2016. It sets out my concerns about the Prevent Strategy.
A good proportion of my teaching in the Faculty of Education involves lecturing on the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE). This is a one-year masters-level programme for trainee school teachers working in the state sector. It leads to Qualified Teacher Status. The programme is run as a partnership involving the Faculty of Education and local partner schools.
This year I have had involvement in the Prevent Strategy training for the first time. A specialist police officer presented to the 200 trainee secondary teachers in the auditorium at Homerton College. They explained how Prevent was part of the government’s counter terrorism strategy and its importance in reducing radicalisation and terrorism. Case studies were used to illustrate how vulnerable young people may be attracted to extremist groups such as those associated with the Islamic faith and those right wing extremists who apparently go to football matches to recruit dissatisfied and dislocated youth.
The narrative presented (and there was no indication whether the case studies were real or illustrative) is that early intervention can combat extremist associations, can encourage young people to realign extremist thoughts and lead to them having a much happier life. The presentation went on to show how intervention had saved these youngsters and encouraged them to a better life without extremists or extremist views. The police officer explained that she believed absolutely in the efficacy of the Prevent Strategy.
After the police officer’s presentation, I spoke with a group of twenty trainee teachers. Many of them accepted the strategy uncritically. The general view was that it was a good idea in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. They accepted that extreme views held by young people might lead to them becoming violent terrorists. The widely held view among this group of twenty was that it was worth intervening and notifying the appropriate authorities if it reduced radicalisation that led to terrorism.
I spent time with them deconstructing the Prevent strategy, while reminding them that they have a legal duty to implement it in schools. First we considered the risks associated with terrorism in the UK, we used data to show that more deaths occur annually in the UK as a result of encounters with items of furniture in the home than they do as a result of terrorism . Why is it we do not have a furniture safety strategy? We then considered what motives the government might have in bringing in legislation that raises anxiety and fear about particular groups? We also considered research about extremism, radicalisation and terrorism, in particular the unsubstantiated claim that there is a conveyor belt from extremist thought to terrorist act. We spent almost an hour discussing the issues.
In spite of this critique, I reminded them of their legal duty to implement the Prevent strategy.
Even though we spent time discussing and thinking about the implications of this strategy and the importance of freedom of expression, these teachers will go on to work in state secondary schools.
State schools have, over the last twenty years, become increasingly subject to centralised control through the reporting of progress data and through punitive inspection by the Office for Standards in Education. Foucault would have described this in terms of surveillance and discipline. As such our state schools have become socially conservative. Teachers can find they have limited autonomy to act critically in implementing policy and legislation.
What I fear then most of all is that through implementing the Prevent strategy in the context of initial teacher education, not only are we in danger of undermining free speech within the university, but also we help perpetuate and promote socially divisive behaviours and action through our complicity. We will be sending young teachers in the profession who will be obliged to single out any child who they suspect might have extremist views. We have to be aware of the University’s role in this.
I therefore ask that we think very carefully about how we implement the Prevent strategy, because if we simply comply with it, not only do we undermine a fundamental academic right to freedom of expression, but, like in the example of initial teacher education, we can end up contributing to divisive behaviours in schools and perpetuating fear and mistrust in society. Ideally I would like to see the University and Colleges robustly challenge the Prevent Strategy.
 Estimates of risk of death from terrorism come from http://www.countercurrents.org/polya160914.htm as 1 in 15.8 million compared with accidental deaths in the home (around 6000 per year) http://www.rospa.com/home-safety/advice/general/facts-and-figures/ as 1 in 10200. If say 5 of those deaths involve furniture in the home, the risk is approximately 1 in 12.2 million (see http://www.hassandlass.org.uk in support of this estimate). It is crude but it illustrates the risk order of magnitude.