Ratcheting up the Prevent agenda in schools

Ratcheting up the Prevent agenda in schools

John Holmwood

The government recently issued guidelines to accompany new regulations on the teaching of sex and relationship education in primary and secondary schools in England. The guidelines were about the use of curriculum material from ‘external agencies’. A lot of media attention was paid to the way they sought to restrict the use of material from groups that are perceived to be ‘anti-capitalist’.

Is there a problem of ‘anti-capitalist’ sex education? Or is there something else going on in this new initiative by an increasingly authoritarian government?

Most of the media reports passed over the fact that the guidelines were set out in the context of sex and relationship education, but that is precisely what provides the clue to what is involved. They come in the wake of protests by parents in Birmingham last year associated with the ‘No Outsiders’ curriculum. This was widely reported as being about the teaching of LGBTQ relationships. The curriculum was, in fact, designed to teach ‘fundamental British values’.

The latter is a requirement introduced in 2014, following the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair. It was part of the Government’s development of the Prevent strategy to address ‘non-violent extremism’ and to include within it a safeguarding duty on schools (and other organisations like health providers, universities and colleges). In the new Guidelines, schools are encouraged to integrate their approach to sex and relationship education with their “whole school ethos” where, “you should already have a statement of values and ethos.” In other words, the new Guidelines, which are not specific to sex and relationships education are tied implicitly to the duty to promote fundamental British values.

The extension of Prevent to non-violent extremism has been highly contentious and has been extended in two further pieces of legislation, including one still under consideration. The first, the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 was passed on 12 February 2019 with the Government committing an Independent Review of Prevent (to be concluded within a period of 18 months of the Bill being passed with a response to its recommendations laid before Parliament). The second – The Counter Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – has a clause that removes that time limit.

In fact, the Independent Review of Prevent has been in suspended animation since the removal of Lord Carlile as its chair as a consequence of his perceived lack of independence. The nomination process to name his successor closed on 1 June, with nobody yet appointed. The terms of reference of the Review had already been criticised because it was focused on the future role of Prevent and not its past implementation. Yet now the Government is pressing ahead with modifications to Prevent without waiting for the outcomes of its promised review.

The new guidelines for schools are precisely about the role of Prevent within schools. Back in January 2020, there were media reports that counter-terrorism police had included Extinction Rebellion on a list of ‘extremist ideologies’. This advice was withdrawn. It has now re-appeared within the new guidelines for schools. Governing bodies and headteachers must, “forbid the pursuit of partisan political activities by junior pupils” and “forbid the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.” Further, examples of extreme positions include, “teaching that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise … promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society … [and] selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions.”

Groups concerned about racism and the teaching of black and ethnic minority histories have complained about the lack of progress in modifying the National Curriculum. Yet, this misses the point that the National Curriculum does not apply to most schools in England. Schools are both increasingly subject to direct control by the Department for Education. For example, by January 2018, 72% of secondary schools were academies or free schools and, therefore, exempt from the requirements of the National Curriculum. They are also outside any local responsibility, incorporated in Multi-Academy Trusts independent of Local Education Authorities.

Simply put, a school’s curriculum is made of two parts, one provided by examining bodies for national qualifications (such as GCSE, A-Levels or NVQs in England) and their subject curricula, and the other related to requirements such as ‘fundamental British values’, Religious Education and Personal Social Health and Relationships Education. In the past, schools might have taken guidance from their local authority, including, for example, the locally agreed religious education curriculum (provided by the local Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education). Schools are now free to develop their own curricula in these areas, or, more usually, to take them from independent providers, including for-profit consultancies charities and other groups.

As already indicated, the ‘No Outsiders’ curriculum was provided by a charity of the same name, offering resources for promoting ‘community cohesion’. There are other organisations offering curriculum resources for the teaching of religious education. Unlike SACREs, which operate under the auspices of the Anglican Church with representation from other faiths, teachers and local politicians, these organisations have no obligation to include representatives of other faiths in developing a curriculum. All schools – whether faith schools or not – must teach religious education and have daily acts of collective worship. Where this is done under a ‘Christian ethos’, such provision will be in accord with ‘fundamental British values’, but should the ethos reflect the different religious traditions of  pupils at a school that will be suspect, as it proved to be in the Trojan Horse affair (despite the fact that non-Christian worship was allowed and the schools had had longstanding ‘determinations’ to do so).

However, it is ‘external agencies’ providing curriculum material that the Guidelines are now targeting. Teachers using material provided by Greenpeace, for example, or failing to provide alternative understandings of global warming, for example, will be at risk of sanction. ‘Fundamental British values’ are increasingly given expression via the Equality Act 2010, yet any claim of institutional inequalities associated with gender, race and ethnicity, or religion is rendered problematic if it suggests that these are a consequence of state failures to act. Worse would be to suggest that they may flow from state policy, as in the case of the Windrush scandal and the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. Citizenship, it seems, should be taught without reference to its struggles, past and present.

The Guidelines cite the duties of Governing Bodies and Headteachers under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. But the Conservative Government’s 2019 Election Manifesto indicated that it wished to ‘update’ the former. The body charged with the implementation of the Equality Act 2010, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, took no steps to address the operation of Prevent, despite reporting to the UN in March 2020 that there were concerns “that Prevent is discriminatory and risks undermining freedom of speech, the right to private life and the right to manifest a religion.”

In July, the EHRC announced two inquiries. One was into the impact of coronavirus on BAME communities which, it said, has revealed “long-standing, structural race inequality” in Britain, the other was into the ‘hostile environment’ policies at the Home Office associated with the Windrush scandal. Each is associated with serious failings of state institutions. By the beginning of August, its Chair, David Isaac, had departed, citing difficulty in getting ethnic minority candidates appointed as commissioners.

Schools will need to be able to justify their curriculum decisions in the face of inspections where the only lines of accountability for academy schools in England pass directly through the Department for Education. Academy Schools sign an agreement on their curriculum with the Education and Skills Funding Agency, part of the DfE, and they are inspected by Ofsted, also part of the DfE. They are overseen by one of eight Regional School Commissioners appointed by the DFE, with oversight by a DfE appointed National School Commissioner.

There is a pattern of the centralisation of Government which has seriously weakened local participation, but, as the Covid-19 pandemic response has shown, has also involved a failure of governing capacity. Government is increasingly conducted through media statement, bombastic claims and blaming of others. The new guidelines for schools are illiberal and authoritarian, but they are continuous with a populism that has dominated English politics for the last decade.


John Holmwood is emeritus professor of sociology in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. With Therese O’Toole, he is the author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, Bristol: Policy Press, 2018).