When three East London schoolgirls fled Britain to join Islamic State in Syria in February 2015, the education world was forced to ask itself some difficult questions. The government's counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, had been in place since 2011, but many teachers and school leaders found the guidance vague and hard to enforce.
It's better understood now, but the topic is still difficult and extremely controversial. Here's our guide to the policy, what it means for schools and where to get help.
In 2011, the government published its counter-terrorism policy, known as Contest. A key feature of this is Prevent, which aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Education was identified as a priority area with regards to tackling radicalism, which means that schools and universities are now legally required to pay due regard to preventing their students from being drawn into extremism.All schools, whether they're state-funded or independent, have a duty to safeguard children. That includes promoting "British values" and protecting young people from radicalisation – a duty that became part of the new Ofsted inspection framework in September 2015.
In July 2015, the Department for Education published updated safeguarding advice for schools, with the aim of clarifying what the Prevent duty means and how to demonstrate compliance.
It sets out that schools need to:
• Assess the risk of children being drawn into terrorism
• Demonstrate that they have robust safeguarding policies to prevent radicalisation
• Ensure that safeguarding arrangements take into account the policies and procedures of the Local Safeguarding Children Board
• Train staff to identify children at risk of being drawn into terrorism, and to challenge extremist ideas which can be used to legitimise terrorism
• Ensure children are safe from terrorist and extremist material when accessing the internet in school.
It's a big responsibility, but there are places to turn for assistance in handling it.
A central element of the Prevent strategy is Channel, an approach that promotes collaboration between various agencies to identify individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism and develop appropriate support plans for them.
Anyone (including teachers) who is concerned that someone may be vulnerable to radicalisation can refer them to Channel, where they will be assessed and supported. Parents need to give consent before a child can engage with the programme, however. More information is available here and there's an online training package covering Prevent and Channel here.
Where to get help
There is no clear-cut profile of a person who may be vulnerable to radicalisation, but Educate Against Hate has provided a useful guide for teachers about the warning signs. The site also offers a wealth of advice, support and resources for parents, teachers and school leaders who want to protect young people.
The Department for Education has published further guidance on preventing extremism in schools, along with a briefing on how social media is used to encourage travel to Syria and Iraq as young people may come across positive propaganda on Facebook and Twitter about joining radical groups.
The government has also shared links with TES to more advice and resources that schools can use to protect their pupils from radicalisation (you will need to register to access them). These include lesson plans on stereotyping and training for teachers on holding difficult conversations on extremism while developing pupils' critical thinking skills.