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Prevent is not working, and it undermines trust between teachers and pupils

5 min read

Writing exclusively for PoliticsHome, Lucy Allan MP says that teachers are being forced by the Prevent programme to monitor and scrutinise what children are saying, with suspicion and mistrust.

There has been growing opposition to the counter-extremism programme known as Prevent from across the spectrum. In 2015 a mandatory duty was imposed on teachers and nursery workers to seek out and report to police and social services possible ‘signs of radicalisation’ in the children entrusted to their care. Failure to seek out children and report them to the authorities has consequences for the school’s Ofsted rating and for a teacher’s career.

This week a mother fought back against this stigmatising and counterproductive measure, challenging heavy-handed state intervention.

The mother’s seven-year-old son was reported to the police by his school when it was disclosed that the child had been given a toy gun. This tarnished the boy’s trust in the school and in wider society.

Along with his younger brother, this little boy – who had done nothing worse than to tell teachers about a new present from his parents – was subjected to a bewildering experience and the police spoke to the mother in front of dozens of parents.

In the event, police officers agreed the matter should not be pursued. But the boys’ mother objected to the needless intrusion by the state into her family’s life. With help from a campaigning organisation, she launched a legal action fighting for recognition that her son had been wronged.

And she won. The authority has now admitted discrimination and breaching the family’s human rights, and agreed to rethink its Prevent guidance – meaning other children in that council area would be less likely to face a similar situation. And, when he grows up, this boy will know that what happened to him was not accepted in a progressive society.

Perhaps the most difficult element of this story is that this seven-year-old now warns his five-year-old brother to keep quiet outside the home through fear of the police. These are fears other children share – and they ought to stop the Prevent programme in its tracks.

At seven, children are learning the basics that set them up for life. They are practising spelling and sums, resolving squabbles with siblings and turning to their teachers for support and guidance at school.

We rightly expect a lot of our primary school teachers. They aren’t just there to educate, but to care, protect and build trust and confidence. It’s vital to our children’s safety that they feel able to approach a teacher if they are having difficulties at school or at home.

The Prevent programme asks teachers to do far more. It requires them to police our children – to monitor and scrutinise what they say, with suspicion and mistrust.

Teachers I have spoken to fear the consequences of failing to be seen to be active under the Prevent duty – whilst there is no penalty for over-zealous or misguided reporting, there is for failing to report.

The inevitable result is that children face draconian consequences for asking the wrong question, telling the wrong story or using the wrong word – they no longer feel able to speak up freely. And, as was admitted in the toy gun case, some are being targeted because of their ethnicity. This seven-year-old’s case is no one-off. There was the four-year-old targeted because his teacher thought he had described his drawing of a cucumber as a ‘cooker bomb’. A 12-year-old boy was referred after playing a terrorist in drama class, and there are many similar cases.

In every case, the children involved have become wary of speaking in school. They’ve learned that talking about toys, drawing pictures and participating in class can have frightening consequences. They have lost some of the wonderful freedom and curiosity that comes with childhood.

Ministers claim Prevent is about safeguarding – protecting our children from being lured into terrorist acts by Daesh propagandists.

Prevent is not working. The vast majority of referrals made under Prevent are found to be unnecessary. It is undermining the relationship between pupils and teachers. It’s when that trust breaks down that children are truly at risk.

That’s why, today, I’ll be taking my concerns to Parliament. My Private Member’s Bill, scheduled for debate today, would remove the obligation on primary school and nursery teachers to police the classroom – restoring trust and common sense.

Schools and nurseries will still be required to promote children’s welfare and protect their best interests. But, if my Bill becomes law, the well-intended but ultimately damaging drive to turn educators into a state surveillance system will end.

If ministers are serious about tackling extremism, they should encourage children to talk – about their feelings, their values and their families. They should allow teachers to build trusting relationships with their pupils and create classrooms where controversial topics can be safely and openly debated and challenged.

The best way to protect children from harm is to give them someone to turn to. A good way to push young people into the hands of terrorists is to stifle their ideas and alienate them from their peers. I understand the extent of the terror threat but in rightly tackling that threat, we must have a care for our core values and the kind of society we want to create.

My Bill could help to make nursery and primary school classrooms the safe and carefree places they once were. I hope fellow MPs will take the chance to let children be children again.

Lucy Allan is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Telford

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