Extremism, Britishness and the future perfect: The funny and the fear when Prevent meets ELT

And if I could not stop the big things, was it not because I had first allowed the small ones to happen”

Janina Bauman (courtesy of M.R)

Endlessly twisting and reshaping confused and misplaced government funding streams into worthwhile projects is part and parcel of working in the public and voluntary sector. At least it was before the money ran dry. Whatever I miss, it’s not having to deal with that kind of challenge.

In particular, I never thought I would have to wrestle with the Prevent scheme again (the government’s anti radicalisation strategy). However to my dismay I recently discovered that private English language teaching (ELT) institutions in this country will have to comply to government stipulations that they demonstrate the promotion of British values and challenge and report extremists. I didn’t think they would reach me here in a small private language school. Here where there would be less wrestling. Here where, as I discovered, the absurdity but also the danger of the strategy is magnified.

My school recently informed me that we had to attend a compulsory training session refreshing us on our safe guarding policies and introducing us to the Prevent scheme. This would explain what it is we need to do to ensure the government’s inspectors are happy we are playing our part. We were warned there could be an inspection at any future time to check on our efforts.

I was confused. Why was Prevent interested in ELT? I guessed maybe it was to do with the number of Saudi Arabian students at some of the posher central London schools. Maybe we were expected to play a role noting and keeping tabs on students who might share a portion of the extremist views of their political leaders whilst not being political leaders themselves (a very different strategy is applied to governments). Regardless, this is not a demographic that exists much in our little zone two school.

That said we get the odd Muslim student, and any policy implemented could impact on them and their time at the school. I joked with one equally cynical teacher about the possibility of a Muslim board to sit along side the one set aside for current students under the age of 18. After the training this didn’t seem quite so funny by virtue feeling significantly less unlikely.

I approached the session with the intention of just sitting it out, content that the ridiculousness of it all in the context of our school, coupled with the fact no one seemed particularly interested, meant it would be a benignly procedural affair.

This was the case for the first section where we focussed on how we might better promote British values. The four key values, we were informed, were tolerance (of other belief systems and faiths), democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty (what would our French students know about that?) It helped that having previously been alerted to a frankly hilarious set of guidelines produced by childcare.co.uk on how to covertly instil British values in 5 year olds, I had devised a strategy on this in advance.

The childcare guidelines inform child minders that “you don’t need to plan specific lessons to teach British values – they should be included in everything you do.” While at first I found ideas such as “look at valentines day cards in the local shops – British values: Making links in the local community” – or “look at flowers, trees and ducks – British values: learn about the world in which we live and be proud of what we see around us”, simply demonstrated the insanity of trying to put national boundaries around stuff people might do, I came to note the practicalities of this approach in managing Prevent. Essentially, the four core British values that demand promotion can be claimed in almost anything that already takes place. Thus there is absolutely no need to do anything new other than produce a policy document that points out the connections.

As far as ELT is concerned this is fairly easy. We complete a needs analysis with a new class – this promotes the (apparently exclusive) British value of democracy. We let new students know about the maximum 20 minute limit on lateness to class – this promotes our (obviously unique) love of rules and laws. We encourage students to talk about their backgrounds – this helps promote an atmosphere of diversity and tolerance.

Unsurprisingly, people warmed to this approach. Not hard to see why given such examples could keep the inspectors at bay with little extra work. So far so good. That was until we began the second section which asked us to consider our abilities to respond to suspicions of extremist tendencies among staff and students.

In our groups we were handed small bits of paper with hypothetical scenarios on them for discussion. We are used to this process – though normally the scenarios describe classroom teaching challenges. An example might be having two students with different language levels, or a student who knows the grammar perfectly but makes habitual mistakes when speaking. We then have to come up with appropriate teaching solutions and develop new ideas. However, today our scenarios involved students with a (presumably) decent grasp of the language expressing, either as part of a class exercise or overheard on a coffee break, ‘extreme‘ views of one kind or another. Thinking up these scenarios would not have been easy, and my boss had a thankless task putting them together – a job that our government seems to assume anyone is qualified to do. But what is more worrying is that we the teachers are assumed to be qualified to act as religious extremism experts in responding to them in reality. Something that poses a challenge to professionals working and trained to work as social educators let alone those with no training whatsoever.

From here things went down hill. Most of the randomly concocted scenarios we had to examine simply represented a race equality issue or were just weird views you would probably ignore. Of course the only one that was raised by any group as an issue was the one involving two people talking about going to see an extremist preacher at the local mosque (the one with the Muslims). Once we got round the fact that this would be an unlikely dialogue – “Hey fancy getting radicalised by that violent hate preacher down the local mosque tonight?” – we had to consider a preachers name that might be used to make this obvious. Which begs the question: How many extremist preachers can anyone actually name?

I know a couple perhaps, but then I’m not average in this regard. If I did recognise one I was content to say I would simply respond by chatting to people. I like dialogue, I would be curious. I’d have a chat. “Ah you would investigate further – good” came the response from management in feedback. Suddenly my triggers were being set off. There had been a light touch to the proceedings so far and but we were now entering dangerous territory. “Let me be absolutely clear” I said, “I will not be investigating anything or anyone.” “Ok” I was asked “what if it was the Hook Man…. what’s his name?”. “Abu Hamza? I said. “But he’s in solitary confinement somewhere in the U.S”.

On the same scenario and from another group came the feedback that “We would probably report it”. I was confused and shuffling in my seat. People, nice and good people, were all of a sudden agreeing to report on students on the basis of something they knew little to nothing about. Complying to demands that would effectively make them unqualified spies in much the way they would agree to act in accordance with a fire drill procedure.

The problem is that the mosque conversation scenario assumes we, as language teachers, know what radical Islam looks like. Any speaker who has been extradited or banned from entering the country will not be speaking in a mosque tonight. Any other has a legal right to do so, and our students a legal right to go. Besides which, as I pointed out in the training, many muslims I know in this country admire and respect banned speakers such as Zakir Naik, but I don’t report them for it.  If you’re concerned about that get talking (not investigating). More talking – less reporting. We need a scheme, just not one like Prevent. To talk and challenge we also need to be informed and we also need to listen. Otherwise we end up calling out witchcraft on the basis of barely understood checklists. 

Conversely, perhaps because I’m more aware of the prevalence and issue of what are for me narrow and counterproductive world views, the less compliant I am to Prevent. But it seems a dangerous compliance is otherwise easy to generate even when people appear blasé, maybe even more so because they are.  

I don’t believe there is no issue out there. There is. But asking people who know nothing about such ideologies to police it can lead to a dangerous manipulation and to good people doing bad things. Sound familiar? The irony of Prevent is that it has become itself a form of extremism. A top down directive that is seemingly capable of radicalising innocent members of the public by infiltrating their working lives, causing them to act in illiberal ways that could seriously damage relationships. How I wonder, are we to prevent that?

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