July 7th: Preventing Radicalisation in Schools

In the staffroom of a 1960s built comprehensive in the heart of East London, the radio is on under single-glazed windows that let in the heat of a July day.  In itself, that isn’t unusual. I pass through without giving it a thought and without registering the looks on faces of teachers who are hearing something out of the ordinary.  The light streams into the room; I head to photocopy, anticipating the inevitable surliness of the reprographics technician who wants copying done in advance at all times, with no exceptions.  He isn’t there so I copy surreptitiously and sneak back out with a criminal lightness.

By lunchtime, I have taught all day and still have two lessons to teach until the blissful moment the school is empty and I can breathe.  My feet are complaining, so I head back to the staffroom to find more teachers gathered round the radio.  And now I know something is wrong.  The radio tells me.  It is surreal, I think, whilst trying to block out the insistent crying of a colleague whose partner works near Kings Cross.

I went through there this morning, I think. On autopilot, bus to Kings Cross, through the side entrance, down towards the Hammersmith and City Line going east.  It was early, 6.30am perhaps.  And it strikes me, in the way the unreal and the strange has a habit of doing so, that I can’t get home.  How am I going to get home?

In the end, after hushed chats and practical exchanges between colleagues, I climb into a car and am driven back to Finsbury Park.  I have never seen London in this way before.  The people walking strike me not as Londoners who have just experienced the horror of a terrorist attack, but of characters in a movie or a music video.  REM’s Everybody Hurts, when they all just get out and walk.  They just get out and walk.

Ten years later, and on the ten year anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in which 52 people lost their lives, I can’t help but take a moment to examine whether we are a society have made any headway against extremism.  The Prevent Duty was published on July 1st this year, only a few days ago; it outlines a statutory duty for schools to spot signs of radicalisation in young people and build resilience to radicalisation through the promotion of FBV, the latest acronym to be presented to education professionals: Fundamental British Values, in case you are not aware.

The double edged sword that is asking teachers to spot potentially radicalised young people is already part and parcel of conversations I have held with colleagues and friends.  While in principle, the concept of being able to safeguard effectively is at the very heart of a teacher’s responsibility, we as experienced professionals know that if teachers were the final line in preventing harm to young people, we have not done brilliantly.  Not because we do not care – somewhere in our teaching histories, we have all been appalled to discover that a child we know, that we have taught, is on the child protection register.  We have been appalled to discover the sometimes horrific circumstances of our wards.  But also appalled that we did not see it.  That we were too busy marking, or making exam entries to have noticed. Or worse, that there was something that we could not possibly have seen.

And it is this that becomes the flaw.  Yes, we have the duty to enact the Prevent strategy in schools, but that does not mean we have the expertise.  Did I miss the training provided by experts on how to spot a potential terrorist in my classroom? Even as I type this, I wonder what that training would even look like.  Underneath the sincerity of such an ideal is a murky truth that I’m not sure we are ready to confront as a profession.

Do we suddenly look at our Muslim students more carefully now?  I am reminded of the discomfort of ordinary Muslim Londoners when they boarded trains and planes in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings.  The actions of a few people marked their experiences for a long time, in the same way that now, the fleeing of schoolgirls from a school in East London means that the movements of Muslim students suddenly becomes a matter of national debate.  How do I know if a child’s unformed thought is radicalisation or the product of the foolishness of the young that will be grown out of?

I cannot even think about the consequences of another terrorist attack on London and I am left bewildered by the dilemma of this situation. Does the quest to create a safe society necessitate the potential false criminalisation of the innocent?  I would hope that I would know the difference between a radicalised child that is dangerous to society and a misguided child who requires debate and dialogue, but I am left uneasy at the thought of having to make that decision – for the simple reason that we as teachers are standing on a line that marks society’s needs on one side and the needs of a possibly damaged child on the other.

I know I would make the sensible choice and follow the guidelines I have been given, but I worry about a ripple effect becoming a tidal wave.  Students need to trust their teachers; without this, the possibility for small, dangerous thoughts left unchecked and hidden increases the risk to us all.  We risk alienating the children that we are mandated to protect.  Nusrat Faizullah, a woman I had the privilege of knowing during my teacher training, has written about how we need to create dialogue between the communities.  She says: “What we need are approaches that are positive about people’s identities and that bring communities together, rather than drive them apart.”  Her whole article can found here.

We cannot escape the reality of our times, but more than ever, we as teachers have not only the duty to ‘Prevent’ but to debate.  We go back to FBV here.  It is a Fundamental British Value to hold fair and open dialogue in a democratic society.  That is what we want to uphold.  That is how schools can change the frontline of education to one that does not stigmatise its charges, but encourages them to discuss, to hold our own version of truth and reconciliation.

When, on July 7th, ten years ago, 52 people died, I was teaching in a school that had a large population of Muslim staff and students.  I will never forget what one student said to me.  He expressed his sadness that a terrible tragedy had occurred.  But he turned his face to mine and asked: “Will they blame us for this?”

This week, it is our duty to remember those who died in the 7/7 bombings and think of their families’ loss.  After that, we have to go to work finding ways to debate our world and the place of religion and race within it so that child – that universal, fearful child – can turn to us, rather than away from us.  And that we as Londoners can feel safe in our lovely city.  That is the real meaning of ‘prevent’.

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4 comments

  1. andrewsabisky

    terrorists are a tiny subculture within a small subculture of Anjem Choudary-esque Islam. Asking teachers to pick them out is silly. Needles and haystacks come to mind. Moreover, more or less every single terrorist who has committed a terror offence in the West has been known to the security services, and in some cases have had extensive contact with them. The system works; we can and do identify terrorists, usually because they do stupid things like going to a London university and promptly joining the Islamic societies (which genuinely are hotbeds of crazy). The problem is that we lack the political will to do anything about it, so it’s much easier to blame schools. Teachers can and should reject this nonsense as lacking any empirical basis. It is part of a wider political laziness that defaults to attempting to use schools to fix social problems whenever such a problem arises. Do not accept transparent attempts to pander to professional vanity. Teacher workload is excessive enough as it is. Identifying terrorists is the job of the security services, and they do it well. Figuring out what to do with them is the job of politicians, and they do it badly. Teachers have no role to play here. Anyone who thinks they can reliably pick out the wolves from the sheep is deluded, and even more deluded if they think they can persuade those wolves to turn back into little cuddly teddy bears.

    The problem is that it seems as though you get into that subculture through personal connections, for the most part. These personal contacts, and not devotion to the faith, seem to be a better predictor of violence. Teachers are obviously not part of that subculture and are ill-placed to spot those who are – though that said, if Mohammed’s uncle is best buddies with Anjem C, perhaps it might be worth keeping an eye out. But I suspect teachers would do so anyway without a bureaucratic initiative telling them to do so.

    • thenewstateswoman

      I think in some ways you are right but it could be said that it is a safeguarding issue – and that is our responsibility. We see the children more than most people. I agree that our intervention, if we make one, may not be effective but does that mean we should not try? I think the bigger issue might be about Prevent and whether it does more harm than good. I want to be informed about it before I criticise/condone, so I’ve asked people to send me information!

  2. Pmichael

    Thanks for another thought-provoking piece. In the more peaceful days of the early 1980s when there was only the siege of US Embassy in Tehran to worry about, teachers were not so hamstrung by form-filling, targets, and other recent tasks that we had the chance to talk to each other, often at some length. By sharing our observations about students, changes in their moods and behaviour, we had both confirmation of our observations (which were often based on something very slight) and a chance to coordinate further observation leading to a focused conversation with the student based on shared concern and perspectives. Ensuring that teachers have the time and contact with each other for such discussions (short, informal and frequent) is an important first step in a Prevent programme.

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