As recent media coverage has shown, the Prevent agenda and how it is to be implemented in schools, colleges and universities is of real concern not just to government, but to teachers, students and parents.
There's a broad consensus about the need to protect young people from extremists wishing to exploit, and manipulate, the concerns and insecurities of people who may feel marginalised, or who are simply curious. However there is no such consensus as to how best this might be done.
A college’s duty
Before discussing the particularities of the Prevent strategy, it is necessary to understand why colleges are included in the provisions of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill (2015). This specifies that the education provider has a duty to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.
The Bill reflects an increased awareness of the targeting of young people in colleges by a variety of extremist groups, and this may be attributable to the fact that colleges are centres of local communities. Colleges are a locus in which people from different backgrounds and ages come together, physically and virtually, to learn and work.
As with schools and universities, colleges are places in which new relationships are formed outside of family and existing social networks.
Monitoring and control
A focus on education providers by extremists, and those seeking to prevent criminal activity, has raised important questions about academic freedoms, the nature and scope of monitoring and control, and the role of teachers and administrators in ‘policing’ their students.
What is important to consider here is that whereas the 2015 Bill does not make a clear distinction between schools, colleges and universities, for those people within the institutions the distinctions are crucial. Understanding the differences in age, and the nature of consent, of curriculum and of the autonomy of students is of real tactical importance to the implementation of the Prevent strategy.
The most obvious example of how tactics matter is the language used to describe the implementation of the Prevent Duty within colleges.
Over the past few years there has been a shift in thinking that makes the Prevent Duty part of the broader ‘safeguarding’ agenda. To become radicalised is not in itself a crime – unless it leads to criminal activity. Likewise, the dissemination of ‘radical material’, while in many cases abhorrent, is not a crime unless it breaks specific laws.
The language used to describe how the Prevent Duty might be implemented therefore has evolved to include responsibilities about pastoral care and implies a different way of viewing radicalisation.
In some ways, the inclusion of the Prevent strategy within the broader safeguarding agenda has made it easier for colleges to understand their responsibilities. Colleges have a long history of protecting students from harm and are well equipped to manage the process.
Making Prevent a safeguarding issue has also made it easier for government and executive agencies to monitor colleges’ activity and inspect progress.
Delivering the aims
However, concerns do remain over how to implement the Prevent strategy, reflecting the complexities of the issues involved in responding to extremism. Comments that describe the strategy as creating ‘suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom’ have some grounding in truth – but they ought not to obscure the aims of the strategy.
Prevent seeks to protect those targeted by extremists from being drawn into criminal activities. How that is accomplished requires skill and sensitivity. If aspects of the strategy are clumsy, ill thought out or inappropriate then they ought to be changed – and the strategy should have mechanisms in place to facilitate such changes.
The Prevent strategy needs to be understood not as a policy aimed at stifling freedom of expression, quashing dissent or curtailing human rights. It should be thought of as a policy that recognises the potential vulnerabilities of young people and of the cynicism of those who wish to exploit them.
There’s much support available to colleges in implementing Prevent. For example, the government’s Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP) introduces colleges to the Prevent strategy and helps them to understand what their role is. It’s been designed by the Home Office and is available to access as an online facilitated session delivered by Jisc. Around 130 colleges have completed the training to date, with more than 1,500 attendees.
Jisc also offers a number of security services that support Prevent in line with the wider safeguarding agenda, including web filtering to safeguard users from inadvertent exposure to illegal or inappropriate material.
All these services are supported by a Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) which monitors and resolves security incidents on the Janet network for education and research, to provide a secure environment for online activities.
For more information on any of these services, visit the security webpages or call the service desk on 0300 300 2212.
Reporting terrorism and extremism
Jisc is supporting an important government initiative to stop the online presence of terrorists and extremists. Find out more on the Prevent Tragedies website.