The research findings for the following dissertation project are summarised below.
Do students and teachers in Tower Hamlets believe their schools are safe spaces in which to discuss and debate issues relating to radicalisation and extremism and what role has Prevent played in this?
Background and Research Methodology
This research project intended to shed light on whether concerns that the Government’s Prevent strategy has had a ‘chilling effect’ on debate in schools are justified. Specifically, the study focused on whether students and teachers at secondary schools in Tower Hamlets perceive school to be the safe space for debate that is hoped for in the 2015 Prevent guidance to schools and to establish what impact Prevent may have had on the status quo. This paper did not intend to answer the question definitively, there being a lack of pre-existing measures of what constitutes safe spaces and how to measure the impact of Prevent. Rather, it was the researcher’s intention to begin evidencing the views of students and teachers in a geographic area where schools have experienced the greatest focus of Prevent inputs in the strategy’s history. Through doing this, building block findings and recommendations for future studies would emerge.
Secondary research questions were constructed, based on the literature review, with the intention that they would provide insights into the primary question. The choice of a multi-strategy study, combining quantitative and qualitative web-based survey and interview data, was well-suited to a targeted exploration of the primary question and its parts. Despite significant barriers and delays during the study, not least the participation of only one school, the study has yielded valuable findings for future studies.
This research has established that in a school in which significant long-term Prevent activity has taken place, there is clear evidence that students and staff generally experience school as a safe space for debate, refuting the idea that Prevent has had a widespread ‘chilling effect’. Evidence of the active development of critical mindsets and confidence to discuss difficult issues is clear. The study has also identified promoters and inhibitors of free debate on extremism, identifying that most inhibitors are not specific to Prevent.
Further, this study has identified broad agreement amongst participants as to what constitutes safe discussion space in schools. The researcher has demonstrated that the characteristics of safe spaces identified are broadly in line with those established by the Holley and Steiner Higher Education study of social work students, Holley, L. C. & Steiner, S. (2005). Safe Space: Student Perspectives on Classroom Environment. Journal Of Social Work Education, (1), 49. This finding demonstrates that it may be possible, with a larger dataset, to move towards agreeing a definition of safe space for the purposes of Prevent guidance. That could inform the content of Prevent accountability measures, something that the interviewees of this study highlighted as highly desirable to have.
In addition, this study identified a valuable thematic that will be of significance to future studies on the topic. The data has indicated that a student’s trusted peer community appears to play a significant positive (as well as negative) role in them feeling safe during discussions. The data suggests that teachers may not be fully aware of the level of positive influence students can bring to a safe classroom space. If, as interviews indicated, Prevent implementation focuses on staff as the leads in discussion, there is a danger that an opportunity for greater student engagement in the topic may be lost. It is recommended that consideration be given to enabling students to assist with the design and delivery of relevant resources. Enabling students to take a greater lead in initiating and facilitating discussion of extremism issues may yield a more consistent and effective way of promoting free debate inside the safety of the trusted peer community and reduce the likelihood of students disengaging from the discussion.
Learning for Future Studies
Future studies should consider:
- Testing the Holley and Steiner (2005) safe classroom space characteristics against a larger dataset with a view to moving towards a definition for the purposes of Prevent.
- How students can be enabled to play a greater part in initiating and facilitating discussions on extremism.
- Understanding how students use terminology relating to extremism and Prevent to better design studies to elicit accurate responses.
- Understanding how students engage with media and current affairs to increase the ability of teachers to engage them in debate.
- Collecting socio-economic and family/community data on students surveyed to examine the reasons why:
- Some students show greater confidence discussing extremism issues inside or outside school.
- Black respondents report raising extremism concerns with family first, whereas White respondents go to friends.
- More Black and Asian respondents report that discussion of extremism had increased in school in comparison to White and Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups who report much lower increases.
- Establish the reasons by which confidence bands are selected. For example, does a middle band selection indicate uncertainty/ambivalence?
- Consider approaching school staff at conferences or training days when they would have more time to engage in a study rather than in the school environment when it was clear that there are significant interruptions.
What this study has demonstrated is that there are significant barriers to studying this topic area in schools, but students who participated in the study generally engaged meaningfully in it and provided insights in to schools that could not be obtained in other ways. This study has provided significant direction for future studies and with the significant increase in the number of Local Authority Prevent Education Officers across the country, it is an ideal time to plan and gain support for future large-scale research studies that will build on the spirit of this study.