I became a teacher not to gather intelligence, but to enhance it

This article was published on Tuesday 7th July 2015 in ‘On Religion’, a quarterly magazine providing in-depth, informed and impartial commentary on religion. It can also be read here.

It is 10 years to the day that terror struck London. I remember it vividly. It was the same week that my second child was born and I had qualified as a teacher.

I found it hard to believe, as I do now, that three of the perpetrators were those born, raised and educated here in Britain. What motivated them? Who or what failed them – their faith community? Parents? Schools?

How the world has changed since that awful atrocity. How education has too.

The last decade has seen a significant shift in our country’s strategy in the war against terror – from intervention in foreign lands, to intervention in our schools.

The 10th anniversary of 7/7 comes just as a new law came into force requiring teachers to play their part in preventing extremism. It also follows reports that a number of British youth, including three schoolgirls from East London, have travelled to Syria to join ISIS.

Having blamed Muslim communities for “quietly condoning” the ideology of jihadist groups, the Prime Minister now wants teachers to look for tell-tale signs of radicalisation in the classroom.

It’s part of the Government’s Prevent programme which demands that certain ‘British values’ be actively promoted in schools. Many in education have been very sceptical about the Government’s real agenda. And it’s now clear that not only is my job just to plan lessons, mark books and supervise detentions – it’s also to spot signs of would-be terrorists. That was one thing my PGCE didn’t prepare me for.

“Teachers cannot be turned into spies,” as NUT leader Christine Blower said. Indeed, I joined this great profession not to gather intelligence, but to enhance it in the young people I love teaching.

Schools already have safeguarding procedures for threatening or violent behaviour. But how does this apply to ‘extremism’?

The Government defines it as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

How helpful is this when trying to identify potential radicals in the classroom? Not very, it seems. Technically under this definition, any Sikh who opposes gay marriage, Christian who believes Jesus is the only way to heaven, and an atheist advocating an end to all religion, should also be considered ‘extremists’.

Has the Government really thought this through? And would learning about ‘British values’ have prevented the 7/7 bombers from carrying out their deadly attacks?

Our education system has for long been the envy of the world. Teachers take enormous pride in working hard to ensure their pupils become the best they can. We inspire creative thinking, active participation and engagement with the issues that affect and prepare them for life.

Schools provide a platform for every child to share their beliefs as well as ‘beefs’. But is even this about to be taken away from them? Comedian Shappi Khorsandi made a great point on BBC Question Time that “schools should be a safe space to grow your personality, try out your ideas and say things that by the age of 30 you will no longer believe.”

This happens all the time in RE where pupils tackle a host of theological and ethical issues, from questions about God to attitudes about sexuality. They are taught to reflect critically, make reasoned arguments, and to justify their position with explanation and evidence. More curriculum time to further develop these skills wouldn’t be a bad thing.

But if, under the new measures, we stifle young people’s freedom to open up and express themselves, to ask difficult questions and say controversial things, they will go elsewhere. And that’s not always a good thing.

Kids need to be heard, valued and supported – not judged, handcuffed and face interrogation from someone in uniform.  That’s the impression the new legislation gives anyway.

No one denies the responsibility of any government to address the problem of radicalisation, but there is clearly a need for ours to reassess its entire strategy at present. Working much closer with, and gaining the trust of, educators and faith groups would be a good start.


One thought on “I became a teacher not to gather intelligence, but to enhance it

  1. A well written piece with some good points. However I would say that schools should provide a key role in assisting authorities to spot signs of radicalism. We’re increasingly seeing that people absconding to Syria to fight for IS are young, many of them students. I am sure that they must be giving off warning signs initially and that had they been scrutinised at school then they could have been apprehended. I know its difficult to define extremism and what qualifies someone to be an ‘extremist’, but I am sure a criteria of some sort can be agreed upon, although how useful this will be is debatable.

    It’s true teachers trained to teach and not to be spies, but I cannot agree that that’s all they should do in this day and age. If you look at GPs, they became doctors to help the sick but increasingly have to deal with vast amounts of paperwork as well as the business headaches of running one’s own practice. It’s unfortunate but we do not live in utopia and it is everyone’s duty, and particularly teachers as they spend so much time with young people, to flag up concerns that they might see. It may be difficult, it may be seen as being overly suspicious, but unfortunately we have to in the current climate. Times of being a passive spectator are long gone.


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