The recent, gripping New York Times podcast on the trojan horse affair has re-opened the injustice dealt to a poor, mainly Muslim, community in Birmingham, its schools, and the educators who worked tirelessly to provide opportunities for their children. The response of politicians and their friends in the mainstream media has been depressingly familiar – the podcast is one-sided and the schools were a threat to the safety of children and the fabric of life in modern Britain. This is unsurprising, not least because so much was staked on the narrative of a trojan horse plot.
In 2011 the Conservative-LibDem coalition Government had set out a new approach to counter-terrorism, a new Prevent strategy. It proposed to tackle non-violent extremism within a national security framework. Although this was not an offence, it was seen as a potential gateway to future support for terrorism through a process of ‘radicalisation’.
Under the coalition government, the policy did not get very far, but its intentions were chilling. It outlined how there were ‘radicalising locations’ which included public spaces, for example, university campuses and mosques, as well as private, more concealed locations such as homes, cafes and bookstores. Publicly-funded schools were not considered to be a very significant issue, although there was some concern about the disparate and ad hoc nature of their regulatory frameworks.
All of this changed in the aftermath of the Birmingham trojan horse affair that broke into the media headlines in early 2014 and the election of a Conservative-majority government. The former was a supposed plot by ‘extremist’ governors and teachers to takeover and Islamise schools. The political reaction to this was fierce, and involved the demotion of schools from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted and misconduct cases were taken out against teachers.
The podcast raised many key points including, that the takeover of schools was with the full involvement of the Department of Education (DfE) under its flagship academies programme; that no charges of extremism were brought; that former Metropolitan Police head of counter terrorism, Peter Clarke, and his education adviser were unaware of the regulations requiring compulsory religious education and daily acts of collective worship in all publicly-funded schools in England; and that, finally, the cases against senior teachers at Park View Educational Trust collapsed because of professional misconduct by lawyers acting for the DfE in failing to disclose evidence.
This did indicate some of the regulatory problems identified in the 2011 Prevent strategy, but not quite in the way it had set out. Ofsted and the Clarke Report failed to apply existing regulatory frameworks and relevant benchmarks to their investigations of the schools. Park View was found seriously wanting in its failure to implement Prevent guidelines. But a report for the DfE in 2011 had shown that 58 per cent of secondary schools didn’t have anyone trained in Prevent. Park View did, but – apparently – not a sufficient number.
The most lurid of the allegations of the Clarke Report was of a ‘jihadi video’ being copied in the school media department. This was quietly dropped from misconduct hearings when it became evident that it was a copy of a Panorama programme made at the request of the police prior to coming into the school to run a Prevent session on the dangers of radicalisation.
But the die was cast. The 2015 election returned a Conservative majority. One of its first actions was to dramatically expand Prevent by creating a duty on public authorities – schools, colleges, universities, health and youth services, etc. – to monitor pupils, students, prospective patients, clients and fellow employees for signs of radicalisation. It also required schools to teach ‘fundamental British values’, a formulation that implied that ethnic minorities may exhibit a deficit of the relevant values.
Prevent addresses a pre-criminal space where no offences have been committed. It represents a massive system of surveillance – in 2019 the Home Office reported that over 1 million people had been trained in how to spot the ‘danger signs’ among those around them. But there is no statutory oversight, and there has been no independent review. The government committed itself to an independent review as part of the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act just before the 2019 general election. Delayed by legal challenges and Covid-19, the reviewer was finally announced in January 2021 as William Shawcross. He was a former member of right-wing think-tanks and an ardent supporter of programmes like Prevent.
The outcome was a boycott of the review by civil society organisations and community groups. It was in this context that we launched a People’s Review of Prevent to evaluate evidence which we had no confidence that the Shawcross Review would consider. Our concern was also to show the harms that were perpetrated by Prevent.
Around three quarters of Muslims in England and Wales live in ‘Prevent Priority Areas’, compared with around a third of the population as a whole. Prevent treats far right extremism as a problem of individuals and not communities, while for Islamist extremism, communities are put under suspicion. One of its consequences is to stifle free expression, especially associated with religion.
It is disproportionately directed at young people with around 50 per cent of all Prevent referrals were children, despite the 2011 strategy concluding that schools were not a concern. ‘Fundamental British values’ have become the focus of a new national curriculum determined by a divisive national security agenda, not the needs of children.
In this context, we argue that Prevent reverses the normal safeguarding duties of professionals like teachers and medical practitioners to consider the needs of their pupils and patients and instead gives priority to a national security interest. Furthermore, because Prevent is concerned with ideas and behaviours that are not illegal, there can be no demonstration that any terrorist threats are diminished.
Whilst the government argues that ‘British values’ include a defence of human rights which is mobilised against extremists, it is indifferent to its own breaches of these rights in the implementation of Prevent. This was even raised by UN Special Rapporteurs. As professor Conor Gearty QC has outlined, “Prevent expands the frontiers of state power well past crime into that pre-criminal arena we used to call freedom. It leads to the stigmatisation of certain communities as suspect and even dangerous, regardless of how carefully they seek to stay within the law.”
The NYT podcast demonstrates how the accusation of the trojan horse plot served to introduce and justify a vast, nationwide security apparatus that perpetuates misrepresentations of Muslims. This is why it is also facing such considerable attacks. Whilst that apparatus is now under review, it is likely that an even more draconian regime will be recommended because of William Shawcross’ involvement. It is for all these reasons that we call on Prevent to be withdrawn.
John Holmwood is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham.
Declaration of interest: John was an expert witness for the defence in a misconduct case brought against senior teachers at Park View Education Trust, and co-author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about The Trojan Horse Affair, Policy Press 2018. The conclusion is available to download here.
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