I work in a large inner city sixth form college with 2,600 students in London’s 3rd most socio-economically deprived borough where unemployment, poverty and homelessness are more common than average. Another way of describing the college is that it is also a rich, diverse learning community, full of highly ambitious and aspirational young people who achieve good results, progress to university in large numbers and hundreds of whom readily volunteer to help others in the community.
Our students may grow up in an economically disadvantaged setting but they also have experience of being members of stimulating and connected communities, not least the schools and colleges they attend. This is where our students build their key relationships with others; family, friends, neighbours, classmates and role models. It is through these relationships that they learn daily about identity and difference and share their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears with others. This strong web of relationships and trust is built up over time. It’s sometimes described as ‘community cohesion’ and it contributes to ‘resilience’. I think these social relationships are our greatest protection against violent extremism. We are rich in them and we also work hard to build and nurture them.
And yet we have had cases of students who espouse dangerous ideologies, who justify and even glorify the use of violence for political or religious ends. These are very few and we think we have tackled them well but we cannot be complacent and this is why our work with Prevent is so important.
Prevent is part of the government’s strategy to counter violent extremism. Before describing how it relates to colleges I want to address the question of anger, extremism, radicalism and radicalisation in an educational setting.
I should start by saying that at various points in my life I have been on mass protests and demonstrations and marched through the streets of London in support of various causes, sometimes no doubt in the company of people who might not be averse to taking more aggressive action. I have been angry about things I perceive to be unjust and I have shouted about it, although mostly to the television and mostly from an armchair.
Many of us have done these things and we’ve been angry. Were we ‘radical’? Were we ‘extreme’? Were we ‘vulnerable’? Were we on some kind of conveyor belt which might lead us to violent extremism?
I can only speak for myself, but clearly I regard myself as a model citizen exercising my right of free expression and nothing that I have ever done has made me any more likely to advocate violence.
So how does all this translate to an educational setting?
We need to start from our educational aims. In our case we want to be a ‘successful learning community’. Success, learning and community are all important to us and this includes encouraging our students:
- To become thinking, critical, active citizens, who are able to take action within the law to bring about change, in short to be capable of being activists.
- To understand enough about global history and politics to be able to place current conflicts and controversies in a wider context and to understand different points of view.
- To question received wisdom and have opinions they can support rationally, maybe even to be dissatisfied with the status quo, to be angry about certain things, perhaps even to be ‘radical’.
- To examine and question their own belief system and understand the place of faith and other belief systems or ideologies within a pluralist society.
As a college we also have a set of values. In our case these are explicitly secular values, ‘British’ values if you like, values which are capable of universal application.
We also have a student code of conduct, a statement on freedom of expression, a statement on religion in college and an e-safety policy. We now have new responsibilities under the Counter-terrorism and Security Act.
We also have a duty of care and we need to protect our students and our community. We know that there are very real risks and that young people can be targets. They can be exploited and manipulated and be drawn into supporting ideologies organised around religious, racial or ideological hatred and which advocate xenophobia, violence or the suppression of free speech, human rights or democracy. There are organised groups who act as recruiting agents for more extreme organisations. In the internet age, extremist discourse knows no frontiers. So, for example a few years ago we became aware of a particularly dangerous on-line preacher who was being taken seriously by some of our students, he was based in Australia. So we need an honest and robust approach to e-safety with plenty of information and support for both students and their parents
Above all, protecting students from violent extremism whatever its source, is a safeguarding issue. So, where does Prevent come in?
We are lucky in Newham. Our experience of Prevent has been overwhelmingly positive and we have engaged fully. Our staff have received WRAP (workshop in raising awareness of Prevent) training and refreshers. This has led us to discuss the issues as a staff group, confront them openly and help all staff to recognise the discourse or behaviours which can be warning signs of violent extremism.
Key staff, including the principal meet regularly with the borough’s Prevent team. We are briefed about local issues and we consider individual cases together before any formal referrals are made.
We have had individual students who have caused us concern, based on their language and behaviours. We have applied our student code of conduct and used our usual sanctions while also making sure that we discussed the issues with our Prevent team. We have tried very hard to educate and help the young person to think more carefully about what they are advocating. In some cases Prevent colleagues have worked directly with the young person concerned.
We don’t expect our staff to take a particular view of British foreign policy, to be experts in theology or geopolitics or to know about the various extremist groups any more than we need them to know the names and activities of local gangs. But they need to understand the risks, recognise and challenge any extremist discourse they may hear, be prepared to defend our shared values and know how to report anything which appears to be a possible risk to the safety of young people or their college. This is not a matter of personal conscience, it is a requirement of our work.
From the student perspective, we don’t want anyone to feel under suspicion or persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political affiliation. But if these are used to justify discriminatory language or behaviours or to advocate or glorify violence, we have a duty to challenge it, to highlight the risks and to make it clear that it is unacceptable and to protect our community.
This is not about circumscribing our students’ right to free speech to a narrow range or deciding what is personally ‘acceptable’ to us. It should not be, for example, about labelling people as ‘good’ or ‘moderate’. But in any community there are limits to freedom of expression and we need to explain the rationale for our particular college limits very clearly. Our student representatives have asked us to tell them more about Prevent and we are involving them in a very open discussion about what it is and what it isn’t.
We set very clear boundaries, explain them well and need to be prepared to hold the line. So in our case we have no single faith religious societies and no external preachers. All external speakers are vetted and require college approval and we provide no platform for speakers who have advocated or seem likely to advocate views which are in conflict with our commitment to equality and respect.
We are an educational community, our mission is to educate and we believe that people can learn how to respect others or disagree with others within a framework of plural and democratic citizenship. Our values need to be lived and practiced by members of the college community on a daily basis and we work hard to promote them. We need to believe that those who jeopardise our community’s values can be turned around but we must also recognise the limits of our educational work and the extent to which violent extremism can be attractive and alluring to some young people. Our interventions do not always succeed. Educators cannot do it all and there is a point where other agencies need to take over.
Neither Newham nor NewVIc is typical but we are happy to share our experiences with other colleges or schools if it will help to engage confidently with these issues and we are already networking with others to do just that.
Adapted from a speech given on 6th January 2015.