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UK teachers' union slams Prevent counter-extremism strategy

National Union of Teachers says strategy is 'smothering legitimate expression of political opinion' in British schools
David Cameron extended Prevent to schools in October (AFP)

The UK's largest teachers union on Monday warned that the government's Prevent strategy was "smothering the legitimate expression of political opinion" in schools and called for requirements for teachers to report children deemed at risk of being "drawn into terrorism" to be dropped.

Members of the National Union of Teachers unanimously backed a motion condemning the counter-extremism policy at their annual conference in Brighton, amid concerns about rising numbers of referrals from schools and complaints that Prevent is discriminatory against Muslims.

The NUT motion said Prevent was being implemented "against a background of increased attacks on the Muslim community and risks being used to target young Muslim people".

"There is a danger that implementation of Prevent could worsen relationships between teachers and learners, close down space for open discussion in a safe and secure environment and smother the legitimate expression of political opinion," the motion said.

Prevent was extended into schools, higher education colleges, nurseries and other public sector settings last year, placing a legal obligation on teachers and other staff to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

Since then the number of young people referred to the government's Prevent-linked Channel counter-radicalisation programme has surged, with almost 4,000 referrals logged in 2015 compared with 1,681 in 2014.

But trust in the programme has been undermined by reports of children as youngsters being reported in seemingly bizarre circumstances, and by indications that teachers were being encouraged to monitor students with pro-Palestinian views.

Earlier this month, a four-year-old was reported by nursery staff after drawing a picture they thought he said showed his father making a "cooker bomb".

But the boy's mother said the picture was of his father cutting a cucumber. In a lengthy blog post, describing her meeting with nursery staff, his mother said she had also been told that he had drawn a picture of a train exploding; an image which she said depicted the start of the film Toy Story 3.

Earlier this month, David Anderson, the UK's independent reviewer of legislation, told parliament's human rights committee that Prevent was stifling freedom of expression and "choking" conversations about terrorism and related issues between teachers and students and some Muslim parents and their children.

He said that some Muslim parents were fearful of having conversations about terrorism with their children because of concerns that their families could be referred to Prevent by "half-trained" teachers, and repeated his call for a review of the policy.

He also said that teachers felt vulnerable and unable to discuss politically sensitive topics in the classroom. 

He cited the case of a teacher in northern England who said she was referred to Prevent and suspended after telling a colleague that she was going to a fundraising dinner for Syria. 

Christine Blower, the NUT's general secretary, said: "The NUT believes there is a moral obligation on schools and teachers to protect children and young people against extremism of whatever nature. The union does, however, have some concerns regarding aspects of the current Prevent strategy.

"The NUT supports the call from David Anderson and many others, for a review of Prevent. Evidence shows that grooming by extremist groups happens mainly on social media sites, not on school premises.

"Schools’ best contribution to countering any behaviour that could be a problem is by encouraging discussion. Some aspects of Prevent inhibit this and it is for this reason that we need a review of the strategy to find the right, and best way to protect children and young people."

Prime Minister David Cameron extended the Prevent programme to schools in October under the British government’s new Counter-Extremism Strategy, saying it would "protect children and vulnerable people from the risk of radicalisation by empowering parents and public institutions with all the advice, tools and practical support they need".

A government spokesperson said: "We make no apology for making sure that measures are in place to protect children and young people from the risks of extremism and radicalisation.

"The Prevent duty is entirely consistent with schools’ existing responsibilities, and good schools will already have been safeguarding children from extremism and promoting fundamental British values long before the duty came into force."