how prevent has placed aggressive secularism in schools

Prevent and the narrative of ‘British values’ discriminates against minority faiths – in particular in education – and undermines the agency of all parents. 


At the Munich Security Conference in 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared a new approach of ‘muscular liberalism’. The approach, and its various iterations, were manufactured in think tanks close to the government, Policy Exchange, in particular.

It has directed public policy over the last two decades, with an increasingly authoritarian cast that calls into question its claim to be liberal.

This piece considers the impact of this approach on schooling and young people in England, through the counter-extremism programme, Prevent.

An end to multiculturalism

Cameron’s speech was directed at what he described as ‘state multiculturalism’. In its place he called for a necessary intolerance towards those who live ‘separate lives’ outside ‘our values’.

In doing so, he was laying the ground for a redirection of the Prevent, counter-extremism strategy. Accordingly, the allegedly “separate lives” of British Muslims identified them both as communities “at risk” and “risky” communities.

The mainstream values Cameron was promoting seem straightforward enough. They were principles of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs.

But these values were described as ‘British’ with the implication that they came naturally to white majority citizens, but less so to those who were first- and second-generation migrants.

Prevent assumes that they must be inculcated in them against their own traditions. This is was picked up by Ofsted, the body responsible for inspecting schools in England, when a duty to promote fundamental British values in all schools in England as part of Prevent was adopted in 2014.

Fundamental British values now underpin the new Prevent safeguarding duty set out in 2015 following the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair.

But there was (and is) no evidence that British Muslims do not embrace those values.

There was always something ambiguous about the invocation of religious tolerance in Cameron’s statement of muscular liberalism.

This concerns the status of what we can think of as religious communities of belonging, distinguished from communities of choice. In secular Britain, Christian identity has become a matter of choice (rather than belonging). This is evident in declining church attendance alongside expressions of personal spiritual belief.

Most secular Britons are ‘post-Christian’, while mainstream Christian Britain – whether Anglican or Roman Catholic – now also expresses its religious identity under liberal ideas of choice.

In contrast, many ethnic minority Britons express their religious identities within communities of belonging. Their religious identity is not only found in ‘beliefs’, but also in practices undertaken collectively. This type of existence includes British Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jews.

This may seem a long way from counter-terrorism policy, but it provides a context for some of what has taken place in Britain in the period since David Cameron’s speech.

As Jewish history shows, minority communities of belonging are easily ‘othered’ and persecuted. It is evident now in authoritarian regimes such as Orbán’s Hungary, Modi’s India, or Xi Jinping’s China.

Worryingly, it also occurs under secular liberalism of the muscular kind. This arises in the representation of the ‘nation’ as an imagined community of belonging.

It is apparent in claims that the nation is threatened by immigrant outsiders and that ‘racial self-interest’ is not racism, but a legitimate expression of the identity of ‘white majority’.

It is precisely because these arguments are increasingly part of mainstream right-wing discourse that Policy Exchange and other right-wing think tanks argue that Prevent should be re-directed away from right-wing ideologies and concentrate instead on what they call ‘Islamism’.

Participation denied and Policy Exchange

It follows from what I have argued that participation within a community of belonging is not a barrier to involvement in other forms of public life, including struggles for social justice and equalities of participation.

Praying, or praying differently, need be no obstacle to equality in education or employment. An injunction to marry within a religious community is no barrier to friendship and other relationships across groups. Or what meaning is there to living together with difference?

One answer to perceived separation might be to encourage greater participation in public life, including through different communities’ own organisations. And yet Prevent does the exact opposite, because it has securitised these spaces.

There can be no requirement that liberal values be held as the ultimate grounding of all values. If religion can be criticised, it can also be promoted.

In this context, then, associations representing Muslims – for example, the Muslim Council of Britain, which is an umbrella organisation of over 500 groups – quite properly describe their values as Islamic.

Why, then, does the government ,and its supporters in think tanks like Policy Exchange, insist on calling Muslim organisations which express Islamic values, ‘Islamist’; and, by that token, also describe them as potentially ‘extremist’?

Policy Exchange also accuses Muslim organisations of being ‘unrepresentative’ of British Muslims, but who does Policy Exchange represent? They uphold their own right to lead and form public opinion (rather than represent it), but it is not a right they will defend for Muslim organisations. Liberal values, properly understood, do not regard majority opinions as more valid than minority opinions.

This must entail that Policy Exchange’s agenda is at odds with the ‘British values’, or ‘liberal values’, they claim to defend or espouse. It is neither liberal, nor democratic, to defend only those organisations that support government policy.

Moreover, it is explicitly authoritarian to argue, as does Policy Exchange, that Muslim organisations should be subject to scrutiny by a special department of the Home Office.

And it is discriminatory to insist that Muslim organisations be subject to regular ‘certification’ to determine whether they are worthy partners in dialogue.

Moving into schools through the academies programme

Around the same time that David Cameron delivered his Munich speech, he also re-launched the ‘Big Society’. This was designed to supplant bureaucratic government by empowering local communities.

One major policy was the academies (and free schools) programme. This programme removed schools from local authority control, but it did so by placing them under the direct authority of the Department for Education, as are all the bodies associated with the oversight of schools in England – the Education Funding Agency, Ofsted, and the Teacher Regulation Agency.

It is enshrined in the requirement on schools in England to teach religious education and have daily acts of collective worship. This is not restricted to faith schools but applies to all state-funded schools.

In the past, the religious education curriculum and determinations were the responsibility of local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs), a locally democratic forum for the representation of different faiths (of elected members from the local Council and local teachers).

Around three quarters of secondary schools and a quarter of primary schools in England are currently academies, but a new Schools Bill has declared that all schools will be incorporated into Multi-Academy Trusts by 2030.

This will make local SACREs void.

Under the Academies Act 2010, academy schools do not have to follow the locally agreed curriculum and the responsibility for determinations lies with the Department for Education.

The default Memorandum of Agreement signed by an academy school and the Education Funding Agency specifies adherence to the ‘default’ position of Christian collective worship, with responsibility for granting other forms of worship lying with the Department for Education.

Evaluation by local religious groups, teachers and politicians, then, will be replaced by scrutiny from the DfE’s Department of Due Diligence and Counter Extremism.

These are all developments associated with flagship policies of Policy Exchange. They actively promoted the academies programme which was pursued by its former chair, Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education.

It is extraordinary that the moral and spiritual development of children is now subordinated to a national security agenda and its tool, Prevent.

Read the full article here.

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