A new study looks at the impact of the Prevent duty in schools and colleges across the UK. The report, published last week, finds there is a disparity along ethnic lines amongst teachers and education practitioners regarding levels of approval towards the statutory duty writes Louis Caresrides.

As part of the national counter-terror strategy, schools and colleges have been identified as one way in which extremism can be thwarted and subsequently rooted out. In July 2015, two years ago, a legal duty came into force requiring that ‘specified authorities’, including schools and colleges, show ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.

Also known as the ‘Prevent duty’, the duty has been at the centre of an extensive, highly polarised, public and media debate.

Advocates of the Prevent duty being enacted in schools and colleges insist that it is fundamentally about safeguarding students against all forms of extremism. They insist it does not stop schools from discussing controversial issues, and is an effective mechanism for averting children and young people from being recruited into terror networks.

On the other hand, critics argue that Prevent predominantly targets and so stigmatises Muslim communities, they question if educators have the necessary skills or confidence to facilitate discussions of such issues, and fear the duty has the potential to intensify feelings of suspicion towards the state – playing into the hands of recruiters looking to draw young people into terroristic activities.

What the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England: An analysis of educationalists’ experience

Researchers from Durham, Coventry and Huddersfield have systematically conducted the first ever evidence-based review centralising on the experiences of ‘front line’ education professionals in schools and colleges who have had the responsibility of putting this duty into practice.

They conducted in-depth interviews with 70 education professionals in 14 schools and colleges in West Yorkshire and London, and with eight Prevent practitioners at local authority level.

Researchers also conducted a national online survey of 225 school and college staff and discussion sessions with Muslim organisations, school and college staff, education trade unions, government departments and local authorities.

The researchers sought to explore four key issues:

  • How has the new Prevent duty been interpreted by staff in schools and colleges in England?
  • How confident do school/college staff feel with regards to implementing the Prevent duty?
  • What impacts, if any, do school/college staff think the Prevent duty has had on their school or college, and on their interactions with students and parents?
  • To what extent, if at all, have school/college staff opposed or questioned the legitimacy of the Prevent duty?

Overall, the study did not find widespread resistance to the Prevent duty and, on the contrary, the report found that the overwhelming majority of respondents had engaged with and accepted the core government message that Prevent should be understood as part of school/college safeguarding responsibilities. Respondents also expressed fairly high levels of confidence with regards to implementing the Prevent duty and key concerns about Prevent limiting discussion around issues of extremism were also unfounded amongst the majority of respondents.

However, there was a strong counter current of concern, particularly among BME respondents, that the Prevent duty is making it more difficult to foster an environment in which students from different backgrounds get on well with one another. To be clear, respondents were in a minority but the report draws out the qualitative experiences of these respondents who feel that the duty might be counter-productive to preventing extremism, fearing Muslim students were being singled out for more scrutiny and, in turn, discouraging Muslim students from sharing further concerns. Respondents also suggested this could play into the hands of terror networks as students feel increasingly stigmatised.

What is indisputable, however, is the difference in responses to the researchers questions based on ethnic lines. There is a consistent trend that those of a BME background were less enthusiastic about the Prevent duty. That is not to suggest the majority of BME respondents responded negatively towards questions about Prevent, the contrary is true. However, there was markedly less support or confidence in the Prevent duty than their white British counterparts. For example, when asked if the Prevent duty made it easier or more difficult for schools and colleges to create an environment in which students from different backgrounds get on well with one another, 39% of BME respondents answered more difficult / considerably more difficult in comparison to 23% of white British respondents. More strikingly, responding to the Prevent duty’s impact on openness of discussions with students about issues such as extremism, intolerance and inequality, BME respondents were three times more likely to respond that the Prevent duty led to less open discussion than white British. Whilst answers differ in degrees of support amongst white British and BME respondents, BME respondents were consistently less optimistic in their response to the Prevent duty.

Overcoming ethnic disparity

There was least consensus among respondents with regards to how the promotion of Fundamental British Values (FBV) relates to Prevent, with focus on the specifically British nature and content of these values and concern about how this can be translated in to inclusive curriculum content and practice. Prevent is often criticised for what is seen as unfair targeting and therefore stigmatisation of Muslims, a criticism grounded at least partly in the fact that the initial version of Prevent had an explicit focus on Muslim communities. What is now needed is for an inclusive approach to ensure Prevent is accepted equally across ethnic lines.

This report, among many things, illustrates that people from BME backgrounds are less optimistic about the Prevent duty than their white British colleagues, and so, if Prevent is to receive widespread acceptance, unwarranted ethnic disparities must be nullified. More research needs to be conducted on both the student experience as well as parents. In the meantime, a concerted effort must be made to encourage communication and inclusivity throughout all decision points of the Prevent duty in order to gain trust and, ultimately, more effectively counter terrorism.

Join Bridge Institute and IPPR tomorrow at a breakfast seminar launching the report.
When: Friday 14 July 8.30am – 10.30am
Location: Central London, 4th Floor, 14 Buckingham St, London WC2N 6DF

About the author

Louis Carserides is Director of Policy at the Bridge Institute, a think-tank that utilises academic standard research centring on Muslims in Britain.



Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and the Public Sphere blog, or of the London School of Economics.