Prevent Polemics

Prevent Polemics

Max Weedon

In 1977 French philosopher Gilles Deleuze stated in conversation with Michel Foucault that in the future, ‘a wide range of professionals, teachers, psychiatrists, educators of all kinds, will be called upon to exercise functions that have traditionally belonged to the police’ (1). That time is here.

Under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, the Prevent programme imposes a legal duty on public bodies such as schools, universities, and the people who work for them, to identify early warning signs of terrorist sympathy in individuals, including children, and report them to the police. Perhaps most worryingly, the government states that signs of ‘non-violent extremism’, is the pathway to ‘violent extremism’ and, therefore, part of the ‘radicalisation process’. These signs are defined for example as ‘vocal or active opposition’ to Fundamental British Values (FBV), including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

The furore over the Prevent legislation has come from a wide spectrum of voices including the mayor of Manchester, Vice Principal of Oxford University, the NUS and the powerful National Union of Teachers. Opponents of Prevent decry it as ‘spying’, ‘wrongheaded’, and a lurch to Stasi style coercion for teachers, doctors, opticians and nurses etc. to turn into informants. Defenders of the legislation are certain it has benign intentions to protect children, and prevent terrorism, and they ask whether it’s time to question what the real motivations are of the people opposed to Prevent. As usual, the media debate surrounding Prevent is in danger of falling into the kind of oversimplified binary argument emblematic of much public discourse, perhaps best summarised by George W Bush when he stated ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists‘, following the 9/11 attacks, which are the ground zero of the Prevent policy.

In schools, Prevent has been filed under ‘safeguarding’ using a technology of language that allows it to slip relatively easily into an existing framework that is designed to protect the welfare of children. Criticisms of Prevent include that new legislation was unnecessary, as students at risk of being involved in any form of crime was already covered by existing safeguarding policies. What Prevent does that is new is to place a focus on the pre-crime space, and the non-violent sphere of vocal opposition to FBV, and non-violent views the government defines as extremist. These views are not defined by the police, government, or Ofsted, but it has been widely reported that Prevent training has included citing pro-Palestinian views, anti-fracking, anti-capitalist protestors and other civil rights movements as indicators. That teachers are only required to have one hour of Prevent training per year begs the question of whether the aims really are to identify potential terrorists, or, perhaps, to use a Foucauldian perspective, to ensure that teachers know what kind of discourse is acceptable both in the classroom and the staff room, and what warrants referral to the police.

Ofsted expects FBV to be actively promoted by schools, and for the Prevent duty to be proactively carried out, with the threat of being force privatised and held accountable as the stick. This threat of forced public–private partnership is illuminating, and links the Prevent legislation to the ongoing global takeover of the public ‘commons’ including education, NHS and other critical infrastructure by the private sector, and can be viewed through a conflict theory lens as a symptom of the neoliberal takeover of the Western economies, which Brexit could be contextualised as a revolt against.

The Prevent legislation clearly modifies the field in classrooms and work spaces, reducing solidarity with those targeted by Prevent, adding ‘capital’ to those who conform to the new codes and rules of conduct, and reducing it for staff/students who are vocal in their criticism of the British form of democracy, British foreign policy, as well as the slew of other non-violent views that have resulted in referral. Recently included in a list of contentious topics created for university staff to detect are ‘vocal support for Palestine’, ‘opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza’, ‘criticism of wars in the Middle East’ and, somewhat alarmingly, ‘opposition to Prevent’.

Does Prevent curtail once the once dearly held academic freedom to challenge, question and disagree, and instead enshrine new taboo subjects that in the new post-Prevent field have become indicators of radicalisation? Instead of universities being places of dissent as they were previously they are virtually silent at this time of crisis. Consider the theft of time Prevent represents for academics and administrators, now bound to a new Kafkaesque bureaucracy of risk assessment and risk management, when for example considering allowing guest speakers to universities, or presumably when scouring through the emails of students using university networks. As Nabulsi recommended to students, ‘don’t go to the doctor’.

Will educators tolerate students critical of FBV and the inference that they denote real British values, and not just empty rhetoric, particularly when history is littered with atrocities committed in the name of the British Empire that might indicate otherwise? Will it be acceptably risk free for teachers or students to question whether a true democracy allows an unelected head of state? Whether British banks act within the law? Does Prevent force negative evaluations of individuals legitimately angry at British foreign policies, including those who query the legality of the Iraq war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, and no charges brought against the intelligence agencies who provided the false information, or the politicians who ordered the deaths of so many innocent people including our own troops?

The conclusions of Andy Burnham, former secretary of state, and current mayor of Manchester, are that Prevent failed to stop terrorism in his city, and should be replaced. He indicated that a different approach is needed to ensure ‘true community buy-in at grassroots level’. As a society we surely cannot rely on politicians and police to enforce this for us using top-down governmentality. Prevent has already to a large extent forced the nation’s teachers, doctors, nurses and so on to internalise the panopticon, to devolve responsibility and autonomy when evaluating what is acceptable discourse. Does Prevent ‘training’ in effect warn us not to question, or show anger over government policy, but to instead proactively promote its virtues and police its malcontents? As Manchester and a succession of terrorist incidents since have shown, Prevent just doesn’t work. It may in fact cause the very alienation and radicalisation it states it is supposed to stop. Most worryingly, despite the technologies of language used to spin its intentions, Prevent has the potential to be used as a tool of the type of totalitarianism we thought we had left behind in the twentieth century.

UN special rapporteur, Maina Kiai, said in 2016, ‘Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect, by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.’ Unless that was the intention Prevent has failed.

(1) Foucault, M. and Deleuze, G., (1977). Intellectuals and power. Language, counter-memory, practice, pp.205-217.


Max Weedon is a doctoral researcher of education and a full time teacher in secondary education in England. He previously co-founded an African children’s charity for HIV orphans, taught in primary education, designed curriculum in the FE & HE sectors and has been a governor in the HE sector. He currently runs a record label, music publishing company, is a music manager, scuba diving instructor and sound engineer. His grandfather was Mention in Dispatches during WWII.

Image Credit: Aleksandar Mijatovic