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The Puzzles of “Preventing Extremism”

Josh Walmsley’s research indicates that Prevent’s demand that teachers support intelligence-gathering undermines the strategy’s safeguarding role

Since 2011, educators have been placed on the front-line in the fight against “radicalisation”, and a coordinated effort to make these demands seem less imposing, alien, and threatening has unfolded. In light of concerns that educators have been cast as government informants, the Home Office insists that “teachers, social workers and others are familiar with the concepts involved in safeguarding and can readily adapt them to the harms caused by terrorism”. As the government has sought to regulate how Prevent is performed locally, practitioners have been trained to treat its demands in the same way that they routinely approach safeguarding. “Radicalisation” now sits alongside “bullying,” “drugs,” “sexting,” and “mental health” as a “vulnerability” from which children must be safeguarded by educational practitioners.

This attempt to domesticate counter-terrorism policy in education depends on the assumption that educators are naturally predisposed towards “identifying radicalisation” based on the practices of protecting children that underpin the profession. Official online training materials from the Home Office provide a sense of how this is communicated:

To protect the vulnerable in society from radicalisation, you need to feel confident in applying your professional judgement and common sense in instances where it might occur... evidence shows us that in real cases, the signs of radicalisation stand out.

In my study, I wanted to find out how these assumptions play out, in concrete terms, when practitioners are required to act upon cases where so-called indicators of “radicalisation” are present. To do this, I analysed Prevent documentation, observed a whole-staff training session at a school, and conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 12 practitioners from schools and colleges across England in April-May 2017 (I also interviewed two Prevent training professionals). In response to sensitive confidentiality issues, part of the interviews involved the use of a realistic, hypothetical scenario whereby participants were required to make (and then reflect on) judgments about a potential case of “radicalisation”.

I found that the drive to frame Prevent as routine, familiar, and straightforward receives practical expression as educators scramble to fulfil their statutory duties. As practitioners justified their choices to report students under Prevent (pertaining to both real cases and the scenario), they regularly characterised these decisions as “common sense,” “clear-cut,” and “black and white”. This pattern concurred with Busher et al’s finding that, in theory, many educational practitioners find the ‘safeguarding element’ of Prevent to be uncontroversial. Here one school’s Safeguarding officer echoed the official narrative:

Because we know where we stand with safeguarding, I think we are trying hard to pigeonhole Prevent into a safeguarding thing. ... yes there are moral judgments that we make all the time, but it's fairly black and white. And therefore, rather than getting too hung up on the rights and wrongs of a lot of the stuff … if we keep it fairly black and white, we can sleep at night... (Nick, personal interview).

Whilst understandably pragmatic and certainly well-intentioned, this is problematic. I found that such abstract verbal accounts fail to capture the practical and moral complexity of practicing Prevent. As practitioners reflected upon their choices in relation to concrete cases, they revealed a significant tension in the Prevent is Safeguarding narrative. The Jigsaw Metaphor

The tension became visible through practitioners’ reliance on the metaphor of a “jigsaw” when justifying reporting students. This logic holds that no single practitioner can access “all” of the “pieces” for assembling a “full picture” of a child’s life, and thus the “jigsaw” can only be effectively “completed” through co-operation of all relevant professionals who must bring their own “pieces” of information to the table. The metaphor, a key organising device in children’s social care, structures the “rules of the game” in safeguarding practice, and prioritises information sharing above all other concerns. As educators are recurrently told that radicalisation is the same as all other safeguarding issues, therefore, they often deploy “jigsaw reasoning” to justify sharing “concerns” about “radicalisation”.

Whilst the jigsaw provides a common language, it vastly oversimplifies the impracticable task of identifying “extremism”— which the government is unable to clearly define —in any stable or consistent way. Kellie Thompson’s research has shown that the abstract “jigsaw” metaphor glosses over the impossibility of compiling a “full picture” of any child’s life. Unlike a real jigsaw, you don’t have a complete image to work back from, nor do you know if you have all of the pieces, or if a given piece belongs to the puzzle that is being imagined.

In theory, the jigsaw is compatible with Prevent because —as it relies on the notion that the significance of each “piece” of information about a child can be objectively identified — it nourishes the assumption that “the signs of radicalisation stand out”. In practice, however, the ways that practitioners make sense of potentially concerning “pieces” are both situated and highly subjective, producing a disparate array of interpretations about what constitutes risk. This is unsurprising when official guidance on indicators of extremism includes factors that might be expected from any child or teenager; “a need for identity, meaning and belonging” or “a desire for excitement and adventure”.

Responses to the hypothetical scenario, combined with reflections on real cases, illuminated the limitations of using jigsaw reasoning when responding to Prevent’s demands (thereby treating counter-terrorism just like safeguarding). When presented with the same consistent set of jigsaw “pieces”, respondents produced a variety of interpretations that contradicted their efforts to avoid interpretation, ambiguity, or “getting too political”. The scenario featured a teenage boy whose experiences and changes in behaviour mirror official guidance on what radicalisation looks like but, importantly, are also facets of everyday life for many teenagers. The diverse ways in which participants attempted to sort between the “pieces” of concern was revealing. Their attempts to insert different ‘pieces’ of the boy’s story into their own imaginary “puzzles” were typically characterised by speculation, suspicion, and doubt. Some identified one of the boy’s Facebook posts, wherein he questioned the notions of “extremism” and “British values,” as hard evidence of “radicalisation”, whereas others thought his analysis was rather on point. Here one practitioner justified reporting the boy to the security services under Prevent’s mandate:

Extremism is a funny word to me… It doesn't really mean anything, does it?... It's difficult. Again, we're getting into the opinions aren't we. And that's not what we do… It's not regular behaviour that we come across. That's what makes it extremist I suppose, I don't know (Nick, personal interview).

Suddenly, the notion that the “signs of radicalisation stand out” begins to unravel. Safeguarding… Intelligence?

Thompson’s work has demonstrated how, rather than fixed images, the “pictures” that policy actors seek are always in motion, and “pieces” can have multiple meanings depending on who is handling them and at which point in time. This raises serious questions about the relationship between the imperatives of safeguarding and intelligence-gathering, which have been forced to converge through the counter-radicalisation programme, Channel. Prevent has been heavily criticised following a series of high-profile cases of alleged interferences with the human rights of Muslim children. Unfortunately, we remain in the dark about the processes through which the security services receive, translate, and connect “pieces” once they are shared by educators. Unless greater transparency is offered, it will be extremely difficult to alleviate concerns that they are in fact not naturally aligned with the goals of safeguarding. This is particularly pertinent in light of the way that the security services also deploy their own “jigsaw metaphor” for policing the so-called and deeply problematic “pre-criminal space”. Insistence on the abstract Prevent is Safeguarding narrative offers little to offset concerns that, in practical terms, the imperatives of safeguarding play a subordinate role to those of intelligence-gathering. Unless the Channel programme begins to share the burden of accountability that weighs so heavily on educators, the fear that children are not being protected from the potential harms caused by their teachers’ co-optation into intelligence-gathering practices will only continue to grow.

Freelance Researcher MSc Conflict Resolution & Governance @joshwalmsley22

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