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10-year-old quizzed by UK police over 'terrorist' spelling mistake

Police data suggests that at least 1,441 under-18s were referred to a government anti-extremism agency from 2012 to 2015
Muslims gather to pray for murdered aid worker Alan Henning killed by IS in Manchester (AFP)

“Soaring” numbers of child referrals to a controversial UK government counter-radicalisation programme have been condemned by Muslim groups and education specialists amid outrage over the case of a 10-year-old reported to police for an apparent classroom spelling error.

Police interviewed the boy and his parents and examined a computer at their home last month after he had written that he lived in a “terrorist house” in a classroom exercise, according to the BBC.

The boy had intended to write that he lived in a “terraced house”, a common style of shared-wall housing in UK cities and towns.

The latest case follows other reported incidents of a schoolboy questioned by police over Palestinian activism and another asked his views about the Islamic State (IS) group after raising the subject of eco-terrorism in a classroom discussion.

Police figures also show that more than two children every school day have been referred for assessment through the Channel counter-radicalisation programme since the government last year introduced a statutory duty for teachers and other education and childcare providers to monitor children for signs of so-called extremism.

“It is no surprise that the number of referrals from schools is soaring. There were 20 referrals in 2012-13. That had shot up to 424 in 2014-15,” Bill Bolloten, an education consultant and part of the Education Not Surveillance campaign group, told Middle East Eye.

The Channel programme was launched in 2006 but the number of referrals has increased markedly in recent years.

Just five people were referred in the programme’s first 12 months but that number had grown to 1,281 by 2013-14, the last year when the police published statistics about referrals.

Data released by police in response to freedom of information requests suggests that at least 1,441 under 18s were referred to Channel from 2012 to 2015, with each year showing a sizeable spike in referrals.

While in 2012-13 nine children aged between zero and eight were referred, in 2014-15 this had jumped to 75. An even larger increase was recorded for teenagers ages 14 to 17 with the number of reports rising from 171 to 601 in three years. 

Muslims account for at least 2,660 of 4,206 total referrals.

“These are not random mistakes. This is a discernible pattern deriving from the Prevent duty and the training teachers are being provided with which suggest to them that there are indicators or signs of radicalisation which they should be looking out for.”

Bolloten cited “Educate Against Hate,” a website aimed at parents and teachers launched on Tuesday by Nicky Morgan, the UK education minister, which suggested that argumentativeness, changes in appearance and excessive time spent online or on mobile phones might be signs of possible radicalisation in teenagers.

He said that cases in which school children had been visited at home by police were likely to have adverse consequences on the children and the families involved, even if no further action was taken.

“Let’s not forget that they were visited at home by the police, so the impact on the child of seeing police officers visiting the family home because of a spelling mistake should not be underestimated.

“This is not only ludicrously ill-conceived, this will have dangerous consequences particularly for young Muslim people who are now being seen by teachers and schools through a security lens.”

Children seen as potential terrorists

About 80 percent of Channel referrals between 2006 and 2013 resulted in no further action, but Miqdaad Versi, the assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the latest cases demonstrated that young Muslims were being viewed as potential terrorists.

“There are huge concerns that individuals going about their daily life are being seen as potential terrorists rather than students,” Versi told Middle East Eye. “This is a natural consequence of the extension of the 'Prevent Duty' to schools.”

Abed Choudary of the Islamic Human Rights Commission also expressed concern about the increase in Channel referrals, and said that placing a legal requirement on teachers to report on students was having a “divisive effect” on communities.

“Subjecting Muslims to deradicalisation programmes for holding alternative views smacks of indoctrination meted out to dissidents by authoritarian regimes both present and past."

The case of the boy quizzed by police over his “terrorist house” error was also ridiculed by social media users on Wednesday using the hashtag #IGrewUpInATerroristHouse.

Concerns about Channel come amid further moves to toughen UK counter-extremism laws, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday suggesting that language lessons for Muslim women might help them to prevent their children from being radicalised.