Tackling the radicalisation of young people is high on the government's agenda. This is unsurprising given that an estimated 700 British young people have travelled to Syria to join ISIS, at an average age of 23. However, recent figures from the government's Channel programme suggest that the implementation of the government's current approach may be exacerbating the problem.
The cornerstone of the government's current approach to youth radicalisation is the new statutory Prevent duty, where schools and universities are legally obliged to incorporate radicalisation into safeguarding protocols. This puts radicalisation on equal footing with other issues such as drugs and alcohol abuse, sexual or physical abuse, bullying or involvement in gang violence, which teachers are required to look out for and report if they suspect a problem. For radicalisation, teachers are now required to refer pupils they are concerned about to the government's 'Channel Programme'. Channel is led by the police, but involves a multi-agency panel of experts that assess the individual and make recommendations about a support package. Since its launch in April 2007, over 4000 people have been referred to Channel.
Channel is controversial, and many details about the programme remain secret. What we do know - through a recent FOI - is that Channel referrals have spiked dramatically in recent years; and worryingly there is a growing gap between those who are initially referred, and those who are deemed to qualify for support. In other words, we are seeing a huge growth in 'false positives': young people referred as at risk of radicalisation, which experts then deem are not radicalised or vulnerable.
In 2015, from June to August alone, 796 people from England and Wales were identified as being "vulnerable" to radicalisation, according to the recent report by the National Police Chiefs' Council. Approximately 40% (or 312) of these were below the age of 18.
However, only 20% of overall referrals required Channel support. Apply this ratio to those under 18, and we find that around 240 young people were being referred incorrectly as vulnerable to radicalisation. Without more knowledge about who these young people are, it's impossible to know what kind of effect being wrongly referred can have on their attitudes towards society or their schools.
The problem with the current implementation of the Prevent statutory duty is that teachers are already extremely busy and to expect them to understand the complexities of youth radicalisation after a 1-hour training course is asking too much. The result, these figures suggest, is that many teachers are over-referring students because of the old adage, it's better to be safe than sorry.
These knee-jerk referrals could have major negative consequences. Firstly, it feeds skewed and critical perceptions of Prevent as being solely an initiative that aims to clamp down on free speech of pupils. For example, Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, declares Prevent to be "the biggest domestic spying programme" in modern Britain. The fact that unconfident but well-intentioned teachers rely too heavily on the referral method in practice bolsters this image. One example is the story of the 14-year-old Muslim schoolboy, who was pulled from class and interrogated for using the word 'l'ecoterrorisme' ('eco-terrorism') in a London classroom in September.
Secondly, the perception of teachers as what delegates at this year's National Union of Teachers' conference described as the "frontline stormtroopers" of Prevent has dangerous consequences for schools: it jeopardises opportunities for free and open discussion by creating an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia.
Thirdly, over-zealous reporting could be having the effect of stigmatising those young people who are not radicalised - but who may conceivably be pushed further towards isolation by being perceived as a possible extremist by the likes of their teachers. The animosity that these referrals could engender could have the inadvertent effect of turning them against society. Some false positives are inevitable when attempting to spot signs of extremism. But if this high rate of unneeded referrals continues, the problem of youth radicalisation may worsen.
To overcome this, one approach could be for the government to establish or support a civil society-run telephone hotline that could act as a first port of call for concerned teachers. This could enable teachers to call up and speak to an expert on youth radicalisation, without having to prematurely involve the authorities or refer to Channel.
But most importantly teachers need support to bring programmes into the classroom that enhance critical thinking and promote open dialogue. What critics of Prevent fail to recognise is that the Prevent strategy actually aims to promote free speech as crucial to the safeguarding duty, maintaining that "schools should be safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology". Contrary to what the critics say, Prevent does not intend to hinder free speech in the classroom. In fact, it maintains that pupils should "learn how to challenge" extreme ideas.
But the current approach - which in its implementation overemphasises the importance of referrals to the Channel programme - is undermining this critical aspect. Instead, training teachers to use programmes such as Extreme Dialogue, Miriam's Vision, and My Former Life will help them to use the safe space of the classroom for exploration and learning around extremism, radicalisation, recruitment and propaganda. Through this they can fulfil both the Prevent duty and their role as educators - without feeling like "frontline stormtroopers".