The Blog

Safeguarding School Children From Extremism Without 'Policing' Their Free Thought

Our political and media establishments have to appreciate that not all problems related with Muslims are ideological.

Post-7/7 Counter-terrorism measures, including the latest Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA) 2015, are perceived by many to be contributing to a social environment where Muslims are being treated as a 'suspect community'. Many feel that this is adding to an increased level of hostility towards Muslims, creating a climate of fear and suspicion in the process. ISIS-inspired terrorism is vile and its slick propaganda is having a devastating effect on some Muslim families with their boys and girls running away to Syria.

But seeing the Muslim glass as half empty - particularly by the political and media establishment - is unhelpful; it is alienating Muslims and has a negative impact on community relations.

Sadly, the alienation started during the Blair government's post-7/7 Prevent agenda, under the wider CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy which conflated community cohesion with security; this, in turn, put Muslims under pressure in spite of numerous polls showing them to be more loyal to Britain than others. The Tory-led Coalition revived the Prevent agenda after coming to power in 2010, with new criteria such as 'non-violent extremism' at its heart.

Such is the reach of the Prevent strategy that even pre-school children can be deemed to be at risk of radicalisation! A society that has prided itself on radical ideas over centuries appears to be ostracising a whole community for the radical views of some, or extreme views of a tiny minority, in its midst.

The CTSA 2015 is now putting a stronger emphasis on its multi-agency Channel Programme. The expectation would be for local authorities, nurseries, schools, universities, social services, healthcare services, the criminal justice system and the police - more or less anyone involved in the care and development of young people - to monitor people for signs of extremism and refer them to the relevant panels. For such a diverse Muslim community the impact of the Channel Programme, since its inception, has been disproportionately high.

This has already been creating a sticky situation in the education sector. One east London school was said to have used 'anti-radicalisation software' in the last summer to monitor pupils and offered workshops for parents on spotting signs of radicalisation amongst small children. In another case, five primary schools with large numbers of Muslim pupils in a London Borough asked pupils to complete surveys designed to provide clues as to who is most susceptible to radicalisation. Many, including some head teachers, expressed concern at this bizarre methodology.

As a parent and ex-teacher, I would imagine that parents of four year olds would be most concerned about their children's overall growth through playing and learning - to communicate, socialise and enjoy their childhood - or about their children's safety and potential harms such as bullying etc.

Most teachers are amazing professionals who come to teaching to share their talents and help prepare future generations of innovators and entrepreneurs from our schools. The question is how well-equipped teachers are, and how much time they have, to deal with the extra burden of monitoring early radicalisation of pre-adolescent or even teenage children who have begun to explore their lives at school? This is the task of the established education welfare service and, on more serious matters, the police. Diverting a teacher's time and energy on something that they are not particularly trained for can drain school resources and also be off-putting to many teachers.

A school is a place to promote critical thinking and creative expression of young ones in their formative period. Schools are also for supporting children from communities or groups that suffer from inequality of opportunity such that each child is given the best chance to lead a successful life.

The growing emphasis on security in the education sector may hamper the huge progress made by some, otherwise deprived, communities - such as the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities - over the last two decades. The politics behind the new counter-terrorism measures may jeopardise the progress of some of these communities.

We talk of safeguarding and wellbeing of our young children. Let us put this in practice by leaving politics outside the school premises.

Another big contradiction is that the Government's statement in the guidance paper that the protection of freedom of speech is of paramount importance does not match with its policy of ostracising those who appear to possess extremist ideas.

The elephant in the room is how extremism is defined. What causes young people, typically from stable families and backgrounds, to leave everything behind and join a barbaric cult that defies religious principles and basic human rights? What roles do issues such as adolescence in a commercialised society, identity in a plural environment, general grievances, a lack of trust in the political class, some of the Government's domestic and foreign policies, ideology, social conditions, etc, play for some people to jump over the other side of the civilised world? We need to understand that there are multiple factors for young people falling prey to nihilistic terrorism.

Our political and media establishments have to appreciate that not all problems related with Muslims are ideological. We need an intellectually sound and evidence-based approach to defeat the vulgarity of Daesh (ISIS)-inspired terrorism. We need a robust strategy and meaningful discussion across communities to properly understand why some people, albeit a small number, feel so alienated in their land of birth and upbringing. Working with and using communities wisely, rather than selectively with a few and ostracising the majority, works better - as the London Met Police appear to be doing of late.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.