Researching Prevent: A Geographical Silence

Researching Prevent: A Geographical Silence

Anna Lockley-Scott

In this article, I want to consider, what I call, the geographical silence that surrounds the Prevent duty, the UK counter-extremism strategy. In particular, I intend to explore the anxiety that surrounds an attempt to research Prevent in schools, indicating that schools have become sites of securitisation.

My research examines the impact of Prevent strategy on Muslim pupils in secondary schools. This is a sensitive topic and it is understandable why schools would not wish to take part in the study. However, examining the reasons for schools not wanting to take part tells a story of its own about Prevent and the kind of environment it has created.

The few schools that did agree to take part in my research did so on the proviso that they remained strictly anonymous, this included not disclosing any detail about location. This extended not just to school district but even to region; for example, a school in West Yorkshire or a school in the North-West. Assuring geographical anonymity was also crucial for the participants, as listening to the voices of pupils and teachers is at the heart of my research. Only through strict assurance of anonymity did the pupils and teachers feel they could even begin to consider trusting the researcher and talking with the approximation of openness desired.

This resulting absence of specific geography is what I refer to as a geographical silence. What is noteworthy is that the geographical silence is a fundamental condition of the research, as without it, the schools would not agree to take part. However, for a researcher, the geographical silence surrounding schools and Prevent has significant implications. For instance, being unable to identify the location of a school also means a number of other indicators have to be removed. Factors such as demography, socio-economic status and other indicators are not possible to disclose, as their composite can be used to identify a location of a school in a specific local area. This limits the potential of the research, precluding geographical comparisons of the experiences of pupils under Prevent in different parts of the country or from different cultural groups. This also causes methodological difficulties for presenting a case study which requires contextual detail for the purpose of rigorous analysis. This article, therefore, explores what this geographical silence tells us about the environment created by Prevent and the implications for carrying out research.

The initial implication of the geographical silence is the palpable sense of anxiety exhibited by schools as sites of research. For schools, participation in the research is a liability as they need to trust the pupils and the teachers to say ‘the right thing’ and be confident that they, as a school, are adhering to the policy as required in the case of potential scrutiny. A researcher therefore is viewed with suspicion concerning what they might witness. Significantly, the Prevent strategy declares itself as ‘not intending to stop pupils debating’ (p5), yet in fundamental ways space for discussion in schools has been limited.  The teachers hesitate to open discussion for the risk of what pupils might raise and Muslim pupils born since 9/11, assume caution when they speak.

This anxiety surrounding the Prevent policy has grown over the last few years due to a series of significant events.  Part of the reason for this anxiety could be attributed to the shift of counter-terror policy from the Home Office to the Department for Education. A policy originally designed as a police and security issue, emanating from the CONTEST strategy of 2011, has been shifted over to become the responsibility of educational institutions. This responsibility on teachers has been made more concrete since the Counter-terror and Security Act (2015) which placed on all educational professionals the statutory duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. For teachers, this involves identifying any signs of radicalisation in pupils through safeguarding and involves preventing extremism through the inclusion of fundamental British values in the curriculum.

In the three years since the Counter-terror and Security Act, research shows teachers have incorporated the duty into their practice, understanding it as an aspect of their safeguarding duties. As a former teacher myself, this is the most practical understanding of Prevent. However, unlike issues of safeguarding concerning child abuse which require protecting the child from harm, safeguarding for Prevent differs. Not only does the child need safeguarding from the source of the radicalisation, but also needs to be safeguarded against as a potential source of terror for the safety of society. Therefore, this means that the attempt to promote Prevent to teachers in training as safeguarding is not as coherent as it is made out to be, leaving room for anxiety in the discrepancy and curtailing research.

The school inspection body, Ofsted, also plays a significant part in creating the atmosphere of anxiety around Prevent severely inhibiting the potential for research. Since 2014 and the Trojan Horse events in Birmingham, Ofsted have come to be seen as the enforcers ensuring the Prevent strategy is being adhered to. Operation Trojan Horse was an investigation into an alleged Islamist take-over of schools in Birmingham. Ofsted was called in to inspect 21 schools and judged them as failing to safeguard against extremism. Some of these schools which had previously been rated as ‘Outstanding’ in Ofsted inspection criteria were downgraded to ‘Special measures’. Later in Autumn 2014, similar reports were given to seven schools in Tower Hamlets, London. It is possible to read these events as an explicit message sent out to schools across the country that adherence to Prevent needed to be overtly demonstrated. This was accompanied by the instruction from the Department for Education requiring that all schools actively promote British values as an aspect of ‘social, moral, spiritual and cultural education’ (SMSC). The heavy presence of scrutiny and the threat of inspection makes schools nervous to risk being sites of research.

The threat of negative media coverage is another aspect which could be seen to have cemented the anxiety of schools around the Prevent strategy limiting researchers’ access. Not only was there negative media coverage surrounding schools in the Trojan Horse affair, but other instances such as the three Bethnal Green girls who went to Syria, the association of Jihadi John with his former school in West London and the scrutiny surrounding whether Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber should have been identified and reported during his formal education, are all instances where schools have been drawn into the limelight concerning their role in counter-terror.

As a result, the statutory duty relating to a counter-terror policy and the role of Ofsted in implementing the strategy, combined with the threat of negative media coverage create an anxiety around schools when raising the topic of Prevent. The burden of this accountability which is placed upon them encourages schools to be insular. Consequently, when asked to be involved in research concerning the experiences of Muslim pupils under the Prevent strategy, schools are understandably hesitant, and the condition of location anonymity becomes essential.

The geographical silence surrounding Prevent, disclosed through attempts to research the topic in schools, indicates an unhealthy environment. With the twin threats of Ofsted and the media, schools are hypervigilant of any risk that they may be perceived as not safeguarding against radicalisation and therefore monitor themselves against the accusation of extremism. Consequently, schools develop a culture of self-surveillance feeding fear which risks distorting what counts as extremism. Consequently, a securitized environment is created in a self-perpetuating way breaking trust between teachers, students and parents.

Within the geographical silence, schools stay quiet because they are afraid that if they speak they might incriminate themselves by indicating they are not suitably fulfilling the Prevent duty. This anxiety is reflected in the experience of Muslim pupils who also resort to a culture of silence and self-censoring for fear they may be perceived as extremist. Muslim pupils need to trust schools as a place of safety, but instead they hesitate to report instances of Islamophobia affecting their lives and the teachers hesitate to open a space to discuss it. Therefore, an unhealthy environment is formed by the conflating of counter-terror policy with the daily dynamics of the classroom.

In conclusion, a discussion concerning the geographical silence created by Prevent raises a range of questions concerning the impact of the policy on schools and the implications for the researcher. It questions the environment of schools since the Counter-Terror and Security Act and unearths the legacy of Operation Trojan Horse.  It raises issues concerning an atmosphere of anxiety experienced by the teachers but also passed on to the pupils. Furthermore, it indicates how schools have developed a self-surveillance environment under the pressure of Ofsted and the power of the media. Finally, the curtailed access to geographical detail creates limitations on the potential for research yet simultaneously the enforced geographical silence becomes the fundamental condition under which research can be carried out.


Anna Lockley-Scott is a former teacher, now PhD researcher at the Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick.