Stifling freedom of expression in UK schools

The UK Prevent programme infiltrates schools, targeting students who express certain views.

Muslim prayers in London
Muslims in the UK increasingly feel they must exercise restraint in expressing their political and religious views [Stefan Wermuth/Reuters]

London, UK – Schoolchildren in the UK who express support for Palestine face being questioned by police and referred to a counter-radicalisation programme for youngsters deemed at risk of being drawn into terrorism under new laws requiring teachers to monitor students for extremism.

One schoolboy told Al Jazeera he was accused of holding “terrorist-like” views by a police officer who questioned him for taking leaflets into school promoting a boycott of Israel.

The case reflects concerns raised about the expansion of the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy into schools, with critics complaining that teachers are being expected to act as the “eyes and ears of the state”.


Since the beginning of July, teachers have had a statutory duty to monitor and report children who they believe may be susceptible to radicalisation, although Prevent engagement officers, who are usually also police officers, have long been active in schools in areas with significant Muslim populations.

Child suspects

The boy, who was then 15 and attending school in a southern English town, said he was also told that “Free Palestine” badges that he wore were “extremist”. Al Jazeera is not naming the student or the school to protect his identity.

“He asked me what I thought of the leaflet,” the boy said, describing how a police officer told him he had been brought into the school to “deal with this sort of extremism”.

“I explained to him my views about freedom and justice and that I supported Palestine. I said I thought Israel should have tough sanctions put upon it and he said these could be radical beliefs,” the boy said.

“He said these are terrorist-like beliefs that you have. He explicitly said you cannot speak about this conflict at school with your friends,” the boy said.

RELATED: Israeli-Palestinian conflict moves to UK campus

The leaflet, produced by Friends of al-Aqsa, an organisation campaigning for Palestinian rights, promotes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

The boy said he had subsequently had numerous run-ins with teachers and with the officer, who had an office in the school.

“I asked my form tutor about Prevent and whether he would act as an informant if I said anything, and he said, ‘I am uncomfortable with that but that is what I have to do,'” the boy said.

 UK schools accused of radicalisation

On other occasions, a dinner lady reported him to teachers for inquiring whether any food in the canteen was produced in Israel. A teacher also spoke to his 14-year-old brother, who attended the same school and was told, “Your brother has radical ideas. You advise your brother to stop or we will report him to the intelligence agencies.”

Spying or paranoia?

Al Jazeera has identified other examples suggesting that Palestine-related activism is something that teachers and public officials are being encouraged to look out for as part of their Prevent duties.

A leaflet produced for public sector workers to help them make judgements about referrals to Channel, a support programme for young people considered to be vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists, includes a case study in which a student’s discussion of “Palestine and other international conflicts” is deemed salient information.

A report on counter-extremism policy published by the think-tank Claystone also cited the case of a teenager identified as requiring deradicalisation for attending a protest against an Israeli diplomat.

“We’ve heard of the police going into schools to talk about Prevent to teachers and saying things like, ‘If a kid thinks the West is at war with Islam it might be a cause for concern.’ Or if a child goes on a demonstration against the bombing of Gaza, ‘Keep an eye on him,'” Alex Kenny of the National Union of Teachers told Al Jazeera.

Prevent has long been a source of resentment among many British Muslims, with critics complaining that it sows mistrust of Muslims and subjects them to discriminatory levels of surveillance and harassment.

In an open letter this month, hundreds of academics warned that the extension of Prevent would have a “chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”.

Addressing those concerns on July 19 in a speech at a school in Birmingham, David Cameron, the British prime minister, said critics of counter-terrorism policies were paranoid.

“The world is not conspiring against Islam; the security services aren’t behind terrorist attacks; our new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children. This is paranoia in the extreme,” said Cameron.

Quite normal teenage behaviours will be viewed in an entirely different way. There is huge potential in this to make mistakes and those mistakes could have lifelong consequences for the children involved.

by Bill Bolloten, educational consultant

But Ibtihal Bsis, a barrister researching the impact of Prevent, said that distrust of the strategy was motivated by genuine grievances.

“Children are now being told by their parents not to share any political views whatsoever,” Bsis told Al Jazeera. “Some children are being asked questions like ‘What do you think of ISIL?’ to entrap them, so that is very concerning.”


Ismail Patel, chairman of Friends of al-Aqsa, dismissed allegations that the organisation’s leaflets were extremist and accused the government of “veering towards totalitarianism”.

“People are scared to talk about Palestine. A lot of mosques now will not put posters up. There is fear in the community so there is self-censorship and self-policing,” said Patel. “That really feeds the process of radicalisation because they are not allowing individuals to express their grievances.”

Bill Bolloten, an educational consultant involved in #EducationNotSurveillance, a campaign network, said there was widespread nervousness among school leaders about the implementation of Prevent in classrooms, and said that many teachers were still in the dark about what was expected of them.

“It is co-opting a range of non-security professionals to be the eyes and ears of the state,” Bolloten told Al Jazeera.

“Quite normal teenage behaviours will be viewed in an entirely different way. There is huge potential in this to make mistakes and those mistakes could have lifelong consequences for the children involved,” Bolloten said.

RELATED: Cameron unveils plan to tackle extremism in UK

A government spokesperson from the Department for Education told Al Jazeera: “School staff should use their professional judgement in identifying children who might be at risk of radicalisation and act proportionately. Good schools already do this and there is guidance available for schools to use.”

“This doesn’t and shouldn’t stop schools from discussing controversial issues, and will give pupils a safe space to develop the knowledge to challenge extremist beliefs,” the spokesperson said.

The boy, who is now 16, left school in June and intends to continue his studies elsewhere. Since then he said he had been visited at home by a Prevent officer and a case worker who identified himself as working for Channel, the programme for young people deemed vulnerable to radicalisation.

During the visit, the boy said the police officer had raised his voice when he and his mother spoke to each other in Persian, his mother’s first language, telling the boy, “Stop trying to be clever with me!”

He said he had been asked about his views about ISIL and the war in Syria even though he is a Shia Muslim, something which he believes most of those who questioned him did not fully understand.

“The Channel officer was more understanding,” said the boy.

“He said they were happy that I was not ‘the ISIS type’. He said if I had any concerns, maybe about friends, that I could call him. And he said, ‘From now on nothing further is going to happen unless you do something similar.’

“I’m not sure what he meant by that.”

Source: Al Jazeera