The Prevent duty turned my young clients' lives upside down and destroyed their trust in others - it must be repealed
Our lives are divided into before and after.
“Before that day, my children were just children. They trusted their teachers and friends – school was a safe place. Before that day, I was just another mum: chatting at the playground gates, reading with other children in school, helping out at the PTA, planning my dream life in a country village.
“Since that day, my children are scared and I’m scared – both for them and for myself. Every small interaction with anybody outside our home results in hours of self-doubt and musings as to how we are seen.”
These are the words of my clients’ mother, after an incident at her young sons’ school turned her family’s perception of their place in their local community, and society, upside down.
In March last year the brothers, aged just seven and five, were separated from their classmates and questioned by police – because of the Government's Prevent strategy, and the colour of their skin.
The eldest boy told his teacher he had received a toy gun as a present from his parents. Conscious of their duties under Prevent, the teachers, who say they never doubted it was a toy, decided to call the police to ask whether and how to make a Prevent referral.
The children were taken from their classes, isolated from other pupils and detained for around 90 minutes in the library. When their mother came to pick them up, she was told she couldn’t see them until the police arrived, but was denied further information.
Officers quickly realised there was no genuine concern. But not before they had been seen by other parents and children who were present for an event, highlighting that an incident had taken place and marking out my clients as "other".
In a meeting with teachers the following day, my clients' mother was told that the teachers' other grounds for suspicion were that the 7 year old had spoken Arabic, and had mentioned going to the mosque with his father. But the family speak no Arabic, and the children have never been to a mosque. It was immediately apparent to her that the teachers' real suspicion, was based on race and their perception of a faith which they do not even practise.
In their mother’s words, the boys were left “confused and terrified”.
Following legal action by Liberty, Bedfordshire Local Education Authority (LEA) admitted breaching the children's human rights, and discriminating against them. They also amended their guidance to schools on reporting Prevent suspicions.
Prevent itself places a legal obligation on schools, health authorities and other bodies to report perceived signs of radicalisation – vaguely defined as “opposition to fundamental British values”. It is poorly drafted, poorly disseminated, and poorly executed.
The consequences for not complying with the duty are severe as schools face criticism and even downgrading by Ofsted – but there are no consequences for improper reports. Inevitably such a system encourages teachers to be suspicious of their pupils and perhaps they feel it is better to call the police, regardless of the impact on the children's lives if those suspicions are unfounded.
Repeal and review
It’s positive that the LEA has amended its Prevent guidance for schools in light of this case and has agreed to conduct a further review.
However while the Prevent duty exists, it will continue to legitimise discrimination in our classrooms. Far from countering terrorism, it is destroying trust between pupils and teachers; stifling and alienating children in the very place where we should encourage their curiosity and growth.
Ministers must learn the lessons of this case, repeal the Prevent duty and subject the wider strategy to a full, independent review as requested by many. Only then can we reject discrimination and restore trust in our classrooms.