Locking a child up just makes extremist ideas more dangerous. We should defeat them through debate

Published by The Telegraph on 19/09/16


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In an attempt to surpass the absurdity of its Prevent strategy, which pre-emptively removes people with “extremist”  ideas from the debate stage, the government is now sponsoring a “Prevent for Kids” programme. Yes, figures released last week have shown that children aged nine and under are being referred to Channel, an offshoot of Prevent, to be deradicalised.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that between January and June of this year, 2,311 under-18s were reported to Channel, including 352 children aged nine and under.

The use of the referral scheme is predicated on the assumption that children are exposed to radical ideas online that need to be neutralised. And since Prevent maintains that ideas contrary to “British values” must be weeded out, its use has been extended to the school playground. The government’s supposed “British values” clearly don’t include important principles like “tolerance” and “playtime’”

Ultimately, however, the treatment of children as potential terrorists represents a crisis in teaching. Of course, nine-year-old kids are impressionable and often like to spout whatever nonsense they’ve been watching on their screens the night before. But the suggestion that teachers should report Little Johnnie to Prevent for making a crack about 9/11 is absurd. Whether singing “Ring a ring o’ Roses” in the 1840s or ’10 German bombers in the air’ in the 1940s, kids have always had penchant for talking nonsense. The only thing that has changed is our approach to dealing with it.

The role of the teacher is to educate, not to quarantine a child because they expressed an inane idea. Ever since the time of the Academy, the fundamental basis of education has been discussion. The willingness of teachers to shy away from confronting a child about an ‘extremist’ ideology clearly demonstrates that teachers are too scared to engage in debate with their school kids.

These are children, not terrorists. And children sometimes talk rubbish and make mistakes. But education isn’t about turning these into a child’s defining feature, but instead working towards a solution and moving on. Nine-year-olds hardly have the most developed sensitivity towards geopolitical phenomena. And while it might be a bit daunting if a pupil starts ranting about how the ISIS Institution for Academic Excellence has better school dinners than Bradford Primary, teachers shouldn’t shy away from engaging with a child.

Of course, it would be inaccurate to solely blame teachers for the use of Prevent’s creation of a kindergarten. Indeed we need to appreciate its position within the wider context of the government’s anti-extremism policy.

The referrals of kids to an anti-extremism organisation demonstrates how “extreme” ideas have become medicalised, with only trained experts entrusted with their remedy. This was further revealed in the Home Office’s decision to compare the “Prevent: Back to School” programme with “safeguarding mechanisms” for other risks such as child sexual exploitation’. But while the term “child sexual exploitation” is as in vogue as alleged extremism these days, their equation completely misunderstands the nature of radical ideas.

An unpleasant idea, whether expressed by a blazer-wearing schoolboy or Islamist preacher like Anjem Choudary, is not the same as a violent action. While certain ideologies may be disagreeable, we should not assume they will have a debilitating effect on their audience. Of course, ideas only become dangerous when they are subject to an intolerant inquisition à la Prevent that persecutes any ideology foreign to the status quo. Not only does it set a dangerous precedent for censoring ideas, but allowing opinions to remain pedagogically unchallenged only intensifies them.

Rather than vilifying nine-year-olds for expressing a load of tosh, they should be challenged and educated by their teachers. If we’re really serious about education and extremism, it’s time to start treating nine-year-olds like nine-year-olds and tell them when they’re wrong.

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