When a teacher fears that a child in his or her classroom is at risk of being radicalised at home or at a mosque, reporting this concern to the authorities is not spying. It is the responsible thing to do in order to protect the individual and citizens at large. On this basis it has become a statutory duty.
The number of school pupils being referred to counter terrorism officials to decide whether specialist deradicalisation is warranted has risen sharply. So has the stridency of criticism of the ‘Channel’ programme that undertakes this work. It is striking that most of this criticism comes not from teachers but from union leaders who claim to speak for them. The former, on the whole, are doing their best for vulnerable children whose education has been entrusted to them. The latter are in danger of losing sight of the gravity of the problem of extremism and the urgency of dealing with it.
In the year since the new reporting requirements came into force as part of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, 1,041 children have referred to Channel. The figure for 2012 was just nine. There have been similar increases in referrals by university staff, NHS employees and prison and social care workers, who are also bound by the act. Total referral numbers have increased steadily from 75 in Channel’s first full year in operation after the 7/7 bombings to 748 in 2012/2013 and 2,811 last year.
No one is suggesting that radicalisation among schoolchildren has risen by 10,000 percent in four years. The increase is more plausible a result of greater awareness of the problem because of a litany of dismaying stories of young people seduced by the ISIS propaganda to travel to Syria. In these circumstances, with a system in place that lets teachers pass on their concerns, it is reassuring and unsurprising that they have used it. In a country with 8.2 million schoolchildren, 1,041 can be considered a low number.
A few pointless referrals have inevitably made headlines. One child was referred to Channel for using the ‘eco-terrorist’. In March nursery school staff in Luton raised the alarm after mistaking a four-year-old’s picture of a cucumber for one of a ‘cooker bomb’.
Kevin Courtney, head of the National Union of Teachers, has said that schools are over-referring children. Malia Bouattia, the new leader of the National Union of Students, has argued that the Prevent programme, of which Channel is a part, thrives on paranoia and needs to be ‘uprooted’.
These people are opinion formers. It is worth reminding them of the reality of radicalisation. At least 800 Britons have travelled to Syria intending to fight for or support ISIS. This egregious jihadist cabal has dragged the Middle East back to medieval times with atrocities that words can barely describe. It is not Prevent or Channel that needs uprooting, but Islamist extremism.
Teachers’ duty to refer at-risk children is in part a response to the decision by three schoolgirls from east London to abscond to Syria last year. Notes expressing their schools’ concern had been sent home in their bags but the girls’ parents never saw them. Only a fifth of referrals are followed up. Participation in Channel is voluntary and its purpose is to help and deter, not punish. It is easy and lazy to denigrate such vital deradicalisation work as an assault on civil liberties. It is also dangerous and wrong.