Prevent – the anti-extremism strategy launched by Labour in 2005 after the July 7 bombings. It was criticised for implying Muslim communities were more “vulnerable” to radicalisation than other groups. It was also perceived as a vehicle for covert spying.
Home Secretary Teresa May ordered a review and relaunched Prevent in 2011. It recognised the flaws in the earlier Prevent programme and stressed that publicly funded schools have a duty to promote community cohesion. But the Education Bill removed Ofsted’s duty to report on how schools promoted community cohesion. Instead it put a stronger focus on teaching and learning while hoping inspectors would spot practices which undermined cohesion when they looked at pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.
It was disagreement over the best way to implement Prevent which caused the high-profile spat between Teresa May and the Education Secretary Michael Gove last week. May prefers to kill the crocodiles when they reach land while Gove wants to “drain the swamp”.
But Crispin Blunt, Tory MP and one-time Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, told Newsnight on 4 June Gove’s attitude was risky. The situation wasn’t black-and-white – if you started draining the bog then other animals who lived there might feel forced to choose whether they were for you or against you. You could end up with a bigger problem than a few crocodiles.
But how does the second Michael, Chief HMI Sir Michael Wilshaw, enter the mix? The answer is in the Ofsted reports on Birmingham schools. Time and again, inspectors comment on a school’s engagement with Prevent. Even schools praised for valuing and celebrating cultural diversity were criticised for not being fully engaged with Prevent. Or their teachers hadn’t been trained in Prevent. Or the local authority hadn’t done enough to promote Prevent.
This emphasis on Prevent raises several questions:
1 Will all schools in future inspections be judged on whether they have engaged with Prevent?
2 Or will this only apply to schools in certain places?
3 If so, who will decide which areas will be targeted? Michael Gove? Sir Michael Wilshaw? Teresa May? The Quilliam Foundation?
4 If a school is already well-integrated and promoting community cohesion, should it be criticised if it didn’t engage with Prevent?
5 If Michael Gove and Teresa May can’t agree on how best to implement Prevent how can schools and local authorities decide the best course of action?
6 Critics say the government’s broad counter-terrorism strategy which includes Prevent is “occasionally a clumsy one”, the FT revealed. “Preventing extremism may ironically work only with a much softer approach.” If schools share the critics’ view, should they be expected to engage with Prevent?
One such critic is Peter Oborne who described Prevent as “divisive”. In 2011 he said the government was muddled when it came to deciding who was a moderate and who was an extremist:
“It is not too late for the prime minister to consider whether he has drawn the dividing line in the wrong place, to reconsider his definition of extremist, and to ask whether some of the most blinkered and dangerous extremists are not to be found within the ranks of his own government.”
I think I can guess who Oborne had in mind.