prevent strategy in education

how prevent sets up harmful power dynamics that disrupt trust in public services

Photo by Ismail Salad Osman Hajji Dirir on Unsplash

The coupling of public services with Prevent not only destroys the trust that is essential in these sectors, but it disturbs crucial power dynamics for trust, and sets up a hierarchy where there is an abuse of power.

This abuse has been widely documented by Prevent Watch and shows a common theme of counter-terrorism officers using the power dynamic to their advantage.

It is difficult to explain or capture the danger of professionals working alongside Prevent officers; these are not cases where criminals or suspected criminals are involved – these are cases involving children and they destroy a very necessary trust for public services to function properly for the benefit of all.

We attempt to capture these dangers through the cases we have documented at Prevent Watch. It should be borne in mind that of our 643 cases, half of them directly involve children, 16 of whom are four-year-olds.

Consequently, most of the multiagency work that we see is between social services and Prevent officers. This is because almost all child Prevent referrals – even those that are not deemed suitable for Channel – are simultaneously referred to social services.

Counter terrorism and the power dynamics of social work

We have recorded a worrying trend of counter terrorism officers representing Prevent making unannounced visits with social workers, especially to those families who have refused to engage with the Prevent process. This is a coercive measure to get parents to engage with Prevent, by piggy-backing onto and abusing genuine social services.

We have had at least three social workers admit verbally to clients that if they just engaged with Prevent then they could close their case and move forward, otherwise the matter will be “escalated”: when Prevent and social services come together, there is an immediate risk in parents’ minds, of having their children removed from them.

Prevent Watch cases with harmful power dynamics

This power dynamic has also come into play at schools. In one of our cases, an eight-year-old boy was questioned by two counter terrorism officers and a social worker during his lunch break at school. This session was completely led by the counter terrorism officers. It took place without the consent or knowledge of the child’s parents.

The social worker did not intervene at any point, nor question the proportionality of why two officers were required to interrogate an eight-year-old.

This exemplifies how one particular social worker’s professional and moral judgement was influenced by the presence of counter terrorism, which set up a hierarchy of power that was abusive to the child because its hindered the social worker’s role to ensure the child’s best interests were protected.

Another case involved a mother of a four-year-old child, who had two counter terrorism officers and a social worker banging on her front door threatening to call uniform police and to force entry if she did not comply and open the door.

Again, the social worker did not intervene nor question the excessiveness of the counter terrorism officers. The incident has left the family deeply traumatised.

When counter terrorism enters schools and health

In another case, a five-year-old child whose father chose not to engage with Prevent, was “investigated” when two counter terrorism officers visited the child’s school unannounced and asked if there when any concerns about the child.

This visit resulted in information about the child being shared; the information was irrelevant to the child’s wellbeing and irrelevant even from the point of view of security. Instead, it was information chosen through discriminating against the child’s religion.

The information of “concern” was regarding the child reciting an Arabic prayer.

We have noticed that many professionals and institutions when approached by counter terrorism officers within the Prevent environment that has been created in the UK, will end up complying with Prevent, even breaching their own policies and best practice in the process.

It is the very nature of Prevent, which places counter terrorism within public services that sets up the framework for this abusive power dynamic.

This is even the case in the mental health sector, and the presence and dangers of counter terrorism in mental health as reported in depth by MedAct.

Debunking the safeguarding myth

We have been saying for some time that Prevent undermines genuine safeguarding, and its coupling with safeguarding has resulted in great harm to both the trust between public services and people, but also to the integrity of public services themselves.

The duty to safeguard is a duty to protect an individual or child. It must have the child’s best interests at heart. The presence of security services within this dynamic has resulted in a dangerous power dynamic which is both unacceptable and counterproductive.

Moreover, when Prevent pundits and the media portray Prevent as being about “unfoiling terrorism plots”, this is deliberately misleading; the very nature of Prevent and pre-crime could not possibly lead to the unfoiling of a terror plot.

Shawcross has suggested that Prevent and safeguarding be “decoupled”, but this is not for the reasons we have outlined above.

Rather, he recommends treating the potential Prevent case as being “susceptible” rather than “vulnerable”, which will only lead to more confusion and higher Prevent referral rates.

This will translate on the ground to more trauma and more pressure on public services to engage and implement Prevent, with a more intense hierarchy of power that is more centralised and unaccountable.

We should never place national security as a greater authority than public service employees who work with individuals, including children, daily. We call on all professionals to exercise their moral and professional judgement and empathy, should they be faced with such situations.

Read more in our reports: The People’s Review of Prevent and A Response to the Shawcross Review


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