Education and the Prevent Agenda: Mythmaking and the Limits of Freedom

Education and the Prevent Agenda: Mythmaking and the Limits of Freedom

Christy Kulz (Goldsmiths) and Naaz Rashid (University of Manchester)


Despite many rejoicing at Gove’s departure from the Department of Education it is clear that his ‘revolutionary’ legacy will endure for some time in the UK’s education system.  One of the reasons cited for his demotion was his recent, very public and personal spat with Theresa May over the issue of violent extremism.  As well as highlighting fissures at the very top  of government, the Trojan Horse or Trojan hoax controversy, explored in last month’s Discover Society, also highlights the inconsistencies and contradictions with which the British education system is riven and the pervasive power of race and religion to frame the debates.

The controversy relies on a number of common sense assumptions regarding the pathologised and racialised Muslim (working class) family, the alleged transformative power of meritocratic neoliberal education, and the relationship between extremism, radicalism and the propensity to commit acts of terrorist violence.  In this article we look at the three powerful myths on which this controversy rests: that freedom in education is always valued; that extremism leads to radicalisation and; the myth of meritocracy.  We do this through exploring the contradictions inherent in the academies project for schools, highlighted by racial and religious differences; what constitutes ‘extremism’ in educational settings, and whose extremism arouses concern, and whether individual aspiration always produces the results promised by meritocracy.

The myth of freedom in Academies

Both Clarke and Kershaw’s investigations into an alleged Muslim plot to take over Birmingham schools castigated Birmingham City Council for not intervening in the governing bodies of the five schools deemed inadequate by Ofsted. Yet four out of the five schools were academies and, by virtue of their academy status, they are neither overseen by, nor accountable to, the council. In fact, freedom from local authority control is one of the key selling points of academies touted by Gove, Cameron and, before them, Labour’s Andrew Adonis. Academies operate as small businesses setting their own pay, conditions, and curriculum. Local authorities are not meant to intervene in their governance, with Multi-academy Trusts (MATs) like Park View Educational Trust free to design their own structures of governance.

New Labour and Coalition education policy has fostered an environment which permits the development of disparate agendas and practices within schools that are very often left to their own devices as long as the high test results keep rolling in. As Kenan Malik recently concluded in the New York Times, the real issue lies in the lack of a shared framework. Education policy does, however, have a shared ideology in that schools must learn to think, speak and act as individual businesses and franchise chains vying for customers while continuing to promote the idea that we live in a meritocracy. This fragmented system has created numerous grey areas.  One London local authority officer recently told us they did not really know what was going on inside the academies within their borough. For example, there were no mechanisms to ensure that independent review panels on exclusions were being conducted properly, or that governors had received appropriate training on statutory guidance.

At the Academies Show this past April in a session entitled ‘Great Governance’, Chris Caroe from the Department for Education emphasised that academies and free schools were in the hands of governors who were responsible for the schools’ accountability. MAT Trust Boards can appoint anyone they like to sit on the board, as long as it includes two parents and the head teacher. This detached autonomy is compounded by an active reduction in the overall number of governors. Within MATs, one trust board can make all the decisions for all the schools within that trust; no formal governance functions need be delegated to local schools, making it easier for any doctrine or direction to be swiftly implemented across numerous schools as governance is centralized, consolidated and professionalized within individual trust boards. Yet the gaping pockets of unaccountability which exist throughout the system only become perceived as problematic when they occur in spaces regarded as ‘dangerous’ and available freedoms are not used purely in order to further the myth of meritocracy.

The myth of radicalisation: extremism = terrorism

Periodic moral panics about religious schools are not new. Whereas a decade ago, however, such debates were framed by the community cohesion agenda, which saw faith schools as both a cause and a symptom of ‘self-segregation’, more recent concerns have centred on the issue of ‘extremism’. Through state education, the state has always played a quasi-parental role, and there is a long history of schools as sites of surveillance given how well placed they are for monitoring populations regarded as problematic, compensating for the alleged shortcomings of ethnic minority, working class parenting, if not perhaps broader issues of structural inequality. In the case of Muslim communities, this has most recently been seen in the mobilisation of the counterterrorism agenda, ‘Prevent, through schools.

The Preventing Violent extremism agenda was originally introduced by New Labour in the immediate aftermath of the London bombings and was focused on ‘stopping people from becoming terrorists’.  Highly unpopular for demonizing Muslims and legitimating extra judicial state surveillance, the Prevent agenda has undergone a number of superficial cosmetic changes since then. Yet it remains at heart a flawed policy.  The tenacious myth of radicalisation which underpins Prevent erroneously supports a linear, causal relationship between extremism (however that is defined), radicalisation and the propensity to commit acts of terrorism (as deftly outlined in Kundnani’s recent book, The Muslims are Coming).

The appointment of Peter Clarke, the former head of the Metropolitan Police Force’s counter-terrorism unit to lead an inquiry into Operation Trojan Horse was therefore controversial, if not entirely surprising. Furthermore, the Ofsted inspections that preceded it, appeared to monitor and assess how Prevent was being implemented in Birmingham’s schools, despite this not officially being part of Ofsted’s remit. (This is particularly ironic since assessing how schools promote community cohesion was removed from Ofsted’s inspection framework by the Education Act 2011.)

In the context of the Trojan Horse affair, the myth of radicalisation means that social and religious conservatism is reframed as ‘extremism’ and is therefore seen as the first step towards supporting terrorism. But crucially it is only Muslims’ social conservatism which is perceived this way. According to this logic, supporting gender segregation in some classes at school could ultimately lead to terrorism. (One wonders how the new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan’s opposition to gay marriage would have been perceived had she been a Muslim head teacher in Birmingham.) Similarly the school was criticised for promoting anti-Western, anti- Israeli sentiments but as David Anderson QC’s review of Prevent shows, the existing legal framework defines terrorism so broadly that it risks criminalising legitimate freedom of expression. Whilst socially conservative attitudes, particularly any that support bigotry, should not be beyond critique and debate, the automatic conflation with radicalisation remains unproven. Furthermore, what is equally at stake is freedom of political expression which critiques the status quo.

Muslims are presented as having the monopoly on conservatism and, subsequently, extremism through this affair and more widely. This pernicious conjecture obscures equally conservative ideological positions, namely Gove’s conservative vision of education and a rapid, reckless overhaul of the education system driven by free market ideology. In Gove’s vision, the only ones clinging to rigid beliefs are Muslim extremists or, incidentally, parents and teachers resisting the forcible conversion of their local schools to academies. For example, Gove previously branded the opponents of Downhills Primary school’s conversion as ‘ideologues’. Meanwhile, the remaking of the education system is not regarded as an ideologically driven ‘extreme’ act, but normalized under the banner of progress and efficiency as extremism and its resultant problems are located elsewhere.

These contradictions are illuminated through Ofsted inspector general Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments in the wake of the second round of Ofsted inspections of the Birmingham schools. He denounced a ‘culture of fear and intimidation’ thriving in some of the Birmingham schools, describing how teachers were being marginalised or forced out of their jobs as these schools experienced a collapse in morale. This denunciation is ironic given Wilshaw’s own well-publicised stance that head teachers should not lead through consensus, but enjoy wielding power, comparing himself to the gun-slinging, wild west hero of the Lone Ranger played by Clint Eastwood.  Wilshaw also complained that a narrow faith-based ideology had been imposed in some schools.  Yet if we are going to discuss narrow ideologies, albeit secular ones, what about the ideological, results-driven belief in mobility myths underpinning education policy? This narrow ideology drives the current educational model and goes unquestioned as a common sense approach, despite the increasing stagnation of social mobility.

While Wilshaw highlighted the dangers of teachers being treated unfairly in Birmingham schools due to their gender or faith, and unfair recruitment practices, highly successful ‘secular’ academies like Beaumont Academy in London experience similar issues, as explored by Kulz, in her recent research at this flagship academy. One parent described a securitized ‘culture of fear’, whilst several teachers felt Beaumont operated questionable recruitment practices, targeting young, inexperienced and childless teachers who would work exceptionally long hours without complaint. Meanwhile, Beaumont’s top-down directives left teachers feeling rigidly surveyed with little discretion over their classrooms and little decision-making power. Yet Beaumont’s practices are not queried. Rather they are praised as an example of best practice as this flagship academy is embraced by politicians across the spectrum. Promoting a culture of fear, stress and intimidation is apparently fine, as long as it is in a secular context.

The myth of meritocracy: all you need is aspiration

What is clear from these contradictory interventions is that whilst academies embody the neoliberal individualized aspirational dream, these interventions continue to be classed and raced. There are different racialised interventions being deployed through education in different localities, addressing the supposed problems specific to these populations with boot camp tactics in East London for ‘urban’ (read black and working-class) children and the prevention of violent extremism for racialised Muslim populations.

Furthermore, the myth of meritocracy and academic aspiration and achievement are belied by the everyday lived realities of racial and religious minorities.  There is a long history of research which shows the presence of an ethnic penalty in education and how this is gendered. From Heidi Mirza’s seminal work, Young, Female and Black (1992) which shows that despite black women doing well at school, they do not reap the economic status and prestige.  Rashid’s recent research on gender in Prevent examined a role models road show aimed at ‘empowering ‘ Muslim girls.  Its rationale was to raise aspirations despite the reality that there is little evidence to support the assumption of low aspirations.

As numerous other recent studies show, aspiration and even high academic achievement do not necessarily equate to labour market success. Despite increasing evidence of improvement in academic performance by ethnic minority groups, research also shows that UK-domiciled ethnic minority students are less likely to gain places at prestigious universities. And even where they do they continue to experience an ethnic penalty at the level of entry into the labour market. Recent Runnymede research shows that labour market outcomes for BME students who attend Russell Group universities are not commensurate with their academic success. “Ethnic minority graduates from Russell Group Universities tend to be less economically active but more likely to pursue further studies. When economically active, on the other hand, many ethnic groups are more likely to experience unemployment compared to their White peers…Given the established impact that early unemployment spells have on occupational pathways these higher rates of unemployment among ethnic minority Russell Group graduates is a cause for concern.” Discrimination clearly plays its part and, in the case of Muslim students and graduates in particular, the impact of controversies such as the Trojan Horse affair undeniably contribute to stereotyping Muslims, thus affecting their employment opportunities.


The new Secretary of State for education, Nicky Morgan, has announced reforms that aim to increase accountability. These moves do not, however, undo the problematic conflation of Muslim conservatism with extremism and the potential to commit terrorist acts. Although no examples of violent extremism were found, this episode has continued the pathologisation of Muslim communities and propagated the idea that religious conservatism is an automatic prelude to supporting or committing acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, deeply entrenched ideologies found in the results imperative, such as the idea that we live in a meritocracy where social mobility will improve if only ethnic minorities and working-class students get better grades (despite myriad evidence to the contrary) are accepted as normal, other conservative ideologies are regarded as disastrous threats to our national fabric. Rather than asking what sorts of scenarios are unleashed by an undemocratic education system with narrow mechanisms for measuring knowledge, the finger is predictably pointed at the failings of local government and extremist Muslim plots.


Christy Kulz recently completed a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths College which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Her thesis was recently shortlisted for the British Educational Research Association’s Doctoral Dissertation Award. She currently is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths and working as the lead researcher on a project for the Communities Empowerment Network focusing on school exclusions and social inequality and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. You can follow her @Christy.Kulz.  Naaz Rashid holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics and is currently a Research Associate in the Sociology Department at the University of Manchester. Her research interests lie in the field of race, gender and religion and her background is in policy. She has contributed to The Guardian and Open Democracy as well as academic journals and is currently working on her book, Veiled Threats: Producing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy  She is a member of Action Against Racism and Xenophobia  and can be followed @naazrashid.