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Duty versus conscience: why might teachers feel uncomfortable with Prevent?

Concerns have been levied at Prevent for its inability to define what constitutes ‘radical’ behaviour (including vocal dissent). Additionally, some have argued that it is discriminatory, operating on a Muslim threat logic that serves to perpetuate Islamophobic discourses. Moreover, it has been questioned whether the policy holds up to philosophical scrutiny, if we problematize the state’s right to ask teachers to recognise radicalisation and report it. Yet, some have argued that Prevent catches the vulnerable and is enacted far differently on the ground than the elite policy discourse suggests. Ultimately we ask, are teachers duty-bound by the state to go against their better conscience when reporting? Do teachers make a moral trade-off between enacting their state duty and their desire to do best by the child?

Duty: What can the state ask of teachers?

‘Vocal…opposition’ suggests the state has placed a duty upon teachers to monitor pupils’ speech in some capacity. This leads us to philosophically consider how far the state can limit pupils’ free speech. Should teachers be agents of the state in this matter, or do children and schools require a different philosophical justification as we are dealing with places of nurture and learning?

Political philosophers have hypothesised imagined opposing dystopias whereby the unfettered state has complete coercive control to infiltrate speech, versus the ‘hateful state’ where all speech is protected but no citizen has recourse to seek protection from hate crimes. Prevent, in its mandate to have teachers monitor pupils’ speech, implicitly relies on the justification that it is necessary to deem some speech as antithetical to the project of liberal democracy for the security of the population. Yet, the extent to which we view children as subject to the limits of free speech is questionable. It rests on how we view children as both participating in democracy but also protected by it.

With the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1990), it was globally recognised that children are no longer to be viewed as ‘citizens-in-waiting’ but rather, full participatory citizens with rights. This shift towards children-as-citizens means that the state – and its institutions such as schools – should recognise children as political beings, consider their rights and responsibilities within the state and allow children recourse to appeal to legal frameworks, should these be denied.

But many would disagree with the idea that children’s participation can be scrutinised in the same way as an adult citizen. Brettschneider (2012) makes the distinction when he says that teachers, as agents of the state, must uphold equality yet ‘students should have the entitlement to hold beliefs at odds with equality’ (p.104). In addition, Warnick (2007) speaks to the idea that schools should be a place of nurture where ‘forgiveness’ (p.333) can take place and children can exercise their ‘liberty rights’ in order to aid ‘independent reasoning’ (p.323). This suggests that schools should be places where children can safely say things without the threat of being reported by a duty-bound teacher.

We begin to see a tension surface between enforcing teachers to report pupils and protecting children’s rights to simultaneously participate in and be protected by the project of democracy. Teachers might feel a discomfort at their options: report and potentially impinge on participatory rights of their pupils, or not report and neglect their mandated duty.

Conscience: How might a teacher’s moral reasoning impact Prevent?

Under the CRC Article 3, it was declared that the ‘best interests of the child in any course of action taken’ (Olser & Starkey, 2005, p.41) should be upheld. We can read this as the right to protection being tantamount to a child’s well-being as a citizen. This proposes a tension with Prevent and how a teacher might interpret the idea of ‘best interests’. For example, some might view the duty as a necessary means of protecting early those vulnerable to radicalisation. On the other hand, many might feel that the best interests of the child are better served in an environment where speech isn’t monitored. The duty, it seems, might pull the teacher’s conscience in multiple directions.

Yet, even with the value of protection in mind, teachers might feel uncomfortable partaking in the data collection involved - O’Donnell notes the high percentage of those reported not needing interventions. This could be described as a form of ‘moral injury’ where teachers, with the best intentions to do right by others, find that no course of action avoids incurring some wrong-doing.

The picture on the ground

Current research is suggesting that teachers have mixed feelings toward the policy, seeing it as everything from insidious to purely administrative. This is in the face of a government which perceives Prevent as a priority. In addition to whether the state can philosophically justify Prevent and its teachers morally reconcile their decisions in the face of it, there is still the question of whether teachers see Prevent as an educational priority. Or, whether we should be more attune to the concerns of professionals on the ground. My research aims to survey whether Prevent is seen as a moral priority by professionals and if not, ask: what should be?

Gemma Gronland

PhD student, UCL IOE

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