As a parent and a primary school governor, I have always appreciated our teachers and school staff and have been acutely aware of how hard they work. But during lockdown, as my wife and I have juggled working full time with home-schooling our two girls, I must say that my admiration has increased tenfold! The dedication, skill and patience required to educate young people is immense. And of course, as if that wasn’t enough, education professionals have a host of further responsibilities, chief amongst them safeguarding.
Sadly, even in the midst of an international pandemic, the danger of extremism is rarely far from the news. From the violence that erupted during far right-inspired protests in London to the horrific attack in Reading that claimed the lives of three innocent victims, one of whom was a secondary school teacher, recent weeks have underlined the importance of Prevent in continuing to counter the threat of extremist violence and terrorism.
Like almost everything else, the work of the government’s Prevent strategy to safeguard vulnerable people from extremism has been impacted by COVID-19, particularly by a significant reduction in reported cases. Prior to lockdown the education sector was the biggest source of referrals to Prevent. Nationally it accounted for 33% of all referrals in 2018-19. However, as many students stayed at home, the opportunity for schools to spot concerns or warning signs naturally fell away too. But the risks have not gone away. In fact, they may even have increased.
Many young people have been at home for an extended period and are likely to have spent increasing amounts of time online. The internet is of course a wonderful resource and a necessity for many children in accessing schoolwork. It delivers huge benefits, not least in enabling us to stay connected to family and friends during this unprecedented period. However, many professionals feel concerned about some of the harmful content that is accessible to children online. For example, extremists have used the COVID-19 outbreak to promote hateful views, sometimes through conspiracy theories blaming a particular group for the virus, or through spreading misinformation. Meanwhile, groups like Daesh/ISIS claim that the pandemic is the will of God and provides an opportunity for terrorists to act whilst governments are preoccupied and vulnerable.
Online radicalisation and exploitation are often hard to recognise because it is a complex issue. When it comes to being drawn into extremist ideas online, sometimes there are clear warning signs but in other cases, the changes are less obvious. Such signs may include, but are not limited to:
- Exploring new and unusual websites, chat forums and platforms.
- Joining new or secret groups since isolation.
- Speaking with new friends or being secretive about chats during online gaming or in forums.
- A strong desire to seek new meaning, identity and purpose.
- Watching, sharing or creating films online linked to religious, political or racial hate.
- Becoming increasingly argumentative or refusing to listen to different points of view.
The online risks, coupled with the reality of finding new, innovative ways of working during lockdown, mean that it would be beneficial to complete a clear, practical Prevent CPD programme that can be completed online, and will empower education professionals with the confidence and knowledge to approach radicalisation and extremism in an effective, responsible way.
It is reassuring that, as with other safeguarding functions, Prevent has continued to operate effectively during this time and has supported many vulnerable young people at risk of radicalisation. The type of support available is wide-ranging, and can include help with education or careers advice, dealing with mental or emotional health issues, or digital safety training for parents; it all depends on the individual’s needs.
And as schools continue the uncertain process of welcoming back more and more students, we will continue to support them if they spot the warning signs of radicalisation. That is why it is important to notice, check and share any potential concerns and work together with Prevent to protect vulnerable people.
Sean Arbuthnot – Prevent Practitioner