The Daily Telegraph and Guardian reported last week on a local council in East London which has been accused of racism and Islamophobia after year 5 and 6 primary school children in five schools in Waltham Forest were asked to fill out a ‘counter extremism’ questionnaire.
The questionnaire asked children living in Waltham Forest questions about their religious beliefs and posed several hypothetical, leading statements to ascertain their strength of feeling towards their religion and to determine if they held “extremist” tendencies. Some of the questions included ones such as these: “Religious books are to be understood word for word” and “I believe my religion is the only correct one”, according to news reports.
The questionnaire was prepared as part of a project on Building Resilience through Integration and Trust whose stated purpose is “to identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age. The consequences of social exclusion, radicalisation and violent extremism are far reaching and are apparent in today’s society in many forms.”
The executive head at Buxton Primary School, Kathleen Wheeler, one of the schools where the questionnaires were used, was forced to write to parents explaining why it was given out following an outcry over the ‘profiling’ of Muslim pupils of primary school age.
She said: “The school takes extremely seriously its responsibility to develop pupils’ understanding of the world in which we live and our duty to create a community that is respectful of all religions, faiths and beliefs.”
Waltham Forest Council has denied the “anonymous” questionnaire was “directed at pupils of any particular faith” though the questions posed and past experience suggest otherwise.
Early fears about profiling Muslim pupils and singling them out for “counter radicalisation” work were brought to light by Melanie Newman of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism who reported on three schools in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, an area which has a history of far-right activism, singling out black and ethnic minority pupils for signs of radicalisation using the ‘Radicalisation and Extremism Risk Assessment’.
Ms Newman showed how the government’s Prevent strategy requires schools to protect children from being drawn into radicalised ideas and was specifically expanded to include far right extremism in 2009. However, she uncovered that schools’ assessments do not target white children, who are assumed to be at low risk of radicalisation, or children who have families with links to the Armed Forces. This is despite recent claims of “vile and disgusting religiously aggravated harassment” aimed at Muslims by far-right groups in Barnsley.
The Bureau’s report illustrates the focus of counter radicalisation work on Muslim communities, at the exclusion of other forms or extremism and radicalisation, despite the policy objectives and Home Office repeatedly pronouncing the strategy as dealing with “all forms of extremism”.
Furthermore, the episode involving Muslim children in East London is not a single isolated incident, but rather ties in with the government narrative of trying to root out“Islamist” extremism within the education system. Several years ago, Counter Terrorism Officers were forced to apologise after they were discovered to have been monitoring Muslims at nurseries in Birmingham arguing “Evidence suggests that radicalisation can take place from the age of 4”. More recently, the Mayor of London and now MP for Uxbridge, Boris Johnson, called for Muslim children to be taken into care because “radical parents” were teaching them “all kinds of crazy stuff”.
The extension of the strategy from nursery through schooling and on to universities has seen the entire education sector embroiled in the Government’s plan to make Prevent a statutory requirement in schools and universities, under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act. The move has been strongly criticised for its foreclosing on free debate, academic freedom and forcing teaching staff to become “spies”.
Past interventions involving universities have been dealt short shrift by higher education institutes with academics refusing to entertain any compromise on their right to academic freedom and describing policies which would require university staff to identify “extremists” on campus as “stupid”.
The Independent reports that new proposals which will be implemented as part of the new statutory duty led to a backlash at the National Union of Teachers Conference in April, when teachers complained that they were being used as “front-line storm troopers” to spy on pupils as a result of poor government guidelines about combating radicalisation.
Delegates at the conference unanimously supported a motion warning that the guidelines were effectively “closing down” any classroom discussion related to the radicalisation of young people out of fear and worry.
The incident in Waltham Forest schools appears to be a replay of some of the more draconian, liberty curtailing experiments that were trialled during the last Labour government and whose effects led to disrepute of the Prevent strategy. How incredulous that a Government that came to power in 2010 on a ticket to reform the Prevent strategy is now repeating all the same mistakes with disastrous consequences for an already beleaguered Muslim community.