Prevent referrals made in FE at record high

Rising Prevent referrals and data sharing case studies lead calls of deradicalisation programme to be scrapped

Rising Prevent referrals and data sharing case studies lead calls of deradicalisation programme to be scrapped

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Referrals from FE to the government’s counter-terrorism programme are rare and are often not taken further. So why are they increasing? Anviksha Patel investigates

A record number of FE students were referred to the government’s counter-terrorism programme Prevent last year – but a shrinking proportion of cases have been escalated to de-radicalisation intervention, show new figures obtained by FE Week.

Critics say the data adds further evidence that Prevent should be scrapped in light of recent data-sharing horror stories, including one student being denied a sixth-form place. 

But FE leaders argue their statutory duty to comply with the policy is not taken “flippantly” and is vital to safeguard students and catch signs of radicalisation as early as possible.  

FE Week received data from the Home Office through a Freedom of Information request that for the first time breaks down Prevent referrals from FE providers.  

The figures, which go back to 2018-19, show that of the 30,162 Prevent referrals over the past five years, a third (10,025) have come from education settings. Of those, just 7 per cent (734) came from further education.  

While the data suggests Prevent referrals from FE are rare when the hundreds of thousands of students taught by colleges and training providers are considered, it does show that referrals are on the rise. (see table)

There were 141 FE referrals in 2018-19, a figure that remained stable until 2022-23 when they hit 215. 

 But of those 215, just 10 per cent (22) were escalated to a full “channel case”, which involves bespoke support through a de-radicalisation programme. In the previous two years, 14 per cent and 15 per cent of FE referrals were taken forward to channel case. 

Most FE Prevent referrals over the past five years were made for extreme right-wing ideology, followed by people with a vulnerability but no ideology detected, those with “no risk, vulnerability or ideology present” and then Islamist.

‘Prevent is not being used to prevent terrorism’  

The Prevent duty was placed on schools and FE providers in 2015 and mandates designated safeguarding leads (DSL) to report concerns of radicalisation to the police-led programme.   

Entering the full programme is voluntary so learners or families must consent before they are adopted as a channel case, which helps to explain why so few are taken forward. 

FE Week analysis shows 683 (93 per cent) of the 734 Prevent referrals from FE to date were male and 559 (76 per cent) were aged between 15 to 20.  

The highest number last year were made under the “vulnerability present but no ideology or counterterrorism risk” category, which is retrospectively catalogued by Prevent officers.   

Just 10 per cent of the 83 referrals made in that category in 2022-23 became a channel case.  

Officials use this category to refer a vulnerable person who hasn’t expressed any extreme ideology and are not at risk of committing a terrorism offence.   

Eddie Playfair, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, suggests these referrals could stem from monitoring software that detects and reports what learners are searching online at college or at their training provider.  

“If there’s a violent narrative or if there’s misogynistic language, hate speech, they are definitely flags for safeguarding and extremism,” he told FE Week. 

Right-wing extremism referrals starting to fall

More than a quarter (198) of the 734 total FE Prevent referrals over the past five years have been for extreme right-wing views. 

But while in the first two years of the data, extreme right-wing referrals made up the highest proportion of referrals (33 per cent and 35 per cent) it shrunk to its lowest proportion (17 per cent) in 2022-23.  

Of the 37 extreme right-wing referrals in 2022-23, nearly a quarter (nine) were adopted as a channel case, a decline from a high in 2020-21, when 42 per cent of the 26 referrals went to channel.  

But Hope Not Hate, a campaign group monitoring far-right extremism, says young people are engaging more with such content.  

“We see an increasing number of young people engaging online as well as in offline activism in some of the most extreme and violent segments of far-right,” says senior researcher Patrik Hermansson.

Potentially harmful outcomes

Polly Harrow senior safeguarding lead at Kirklees College

Polly Harrow, assistant principal for student experience at Kirklees College, cannot explain the rise in FE referrals but stresses that colleges wouldn’t “flippantly make a Prevent referral”.  

The disparity in referrals making it to channel could also be linked to a long-standing mistrust in Prevent and recent exposés of data collection and sharing.  

In February, a report by digital rights campaigner Open Rights Group revealed Prevent referrals data can be stored on police databases for a minimum of six years and “could be justified for up to 100 years”, even when the referral does not make it to channel.  

That can cause “potentially harmful outcomes” when shared between education institutions, immigration and border agencies. Referred learners do not have to consent, or be informed, of their data being shared.  

The report published the case study of Tarik, a 16-year-old whose Prevent referral in school – where he corrected a teacher about the definition of jihad and the school discovered some inappropriate group chat messages – was transferred and led to the withdrawal of a sixth-form place.  

“The safeguarding file is supposed to be used to support the child, not to impact decisions of admissions,” Tarik’s parent said.   

Layla Aitlhadj from Prevent Watch, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that supports people who have been referred, said: “Prevent is not being used to prevent terrorism, it is instead being used to securitise innocent children and young adults.” 

 In the case of 17-year-old Munir, his secondary school Prevent referral was used by his sixth-form college to send him home for not demonstrating “inclusive values”. 

 “Neither student had done nor intended anything unlawful, yet their future prospects were hindered,” Aitlhadj says.  

Harrow says the case studies “surprised” her. “The sharing of safeguarding information has to be appropriate, and it has to be on a need-to-know basis.”  

Playfair added: “Are there some bad design examples of overreaction, misunderstanding, knee-jerk reactions, etc? Yes,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take that responsibility seriously.”  

Aitlhadj said “many” of the individuals Prevent Watch supports report a “desire to seek support from traditional social and community services but have lost trust in these crucial relationships for a healthy society”.

‘You can’t expect educators to solve terrorism’  

In the lead up to the election, the main political parties have vowed to crack down on terrorism.   

The main political party manifestos include pledges on Prevent and terrorism

The Conservatives say they will foster an alliance between the National Crime Agency and counter-terrorism policing. Labour says it will update the rules around counter-extremism, including online. The Lib Dems say they will restore access to EU-wide data sharing, while the Green party promises to scrap Prevent.  

Earlier this year, the Home Office updated its guidance list of extreme ideologies and refreshed the definition of extremism to mean an ideology based on “violence, hatred or intolerance”.  

Following an independent review from William Shawcross last year, the government is in the process of reviewing 34 recommendations made, and will provide more ideology training for Prevent practitioners, a granular breakdown of education referrals and an increased focus on Islamist extremism.  

Questions have consistently been raised about the disparity between the government and media communications on preventing Islamist terrorism and the effectiveness of Prevent in identifying Islamist radicalisation.  

FE Week’s FOI data found of the 66 Islamist referrals made by FE over the past five years, five have progressed to channel.  

Last year, Amnesty International found Islamophobic stereotypes have played “a major role in referrals to Prevent”, despite government guidance highlighting that Prevent was “not about targeting different faiths”.  

Anti-Prevent campaigners are also worried about the “extraordinary focus and infrastructure” put on colleges to up their safeguarding responsibilities. 

Harrow says that the resources needed to keep young people safe “needs more funding”.  

Meanwhile, Sara Chitseko, Open Rights Group’s pre-crime programme manager, says Prevent should be scrapped in favour of investing in services that support young people “rather than surveilling them”.  

Playfair added: “You can’t expect educators to solve terrorism, but it would be remiss of the education system and other public services not to be vigilant.”

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