In the UK, your child’s teacher could be a spy

New security guidelines that require teachers to report pupils who show signs of radicalisation are worrying educators.

Turning classrooms into a "police state" has never before been asked of teachers [AP, file picture]
Turning classrooms into a "police state" has never before been asked of teachers [AP, file picture]

Here in London, the media has been reporting that one of the UK’s largest teachers’ unions is up in arms about new counterterrorism guidelines that will ask teachers to report any pupils that show signs of radicalisation.

This is a worrying development.

At the annual meeting of the National Union Of Teachers on Monday, teachers were afraid that pupils will simply stop talking for fear of being labelled. They’re also worried that the teachers will become “stormtroopers” for Britain’s security services.

If we begin to police our classrooms where does it end? ‎Clearly civil rights groups and teachers all have concerns and these have been well documented. Plenty has also been written about why young people want to go and fight despite living in England.

According to MI5 there might be 600 or so fighters in Iraq and Syria from the UK. Six hundred is not many.

It’s a concern, but is it enough to turn classrooms into a police state? To ask people to spy on neighbours?Probably not, but this is how the UK has always dealt with any threat.

In the 1970s it was the Irish. Advertisements in newspapers would suggest that if Irish people moved next door to you, you should be aware.

In the 1980s, young black men were labelled as violent drug dealers, and people were asked to inform on them.

The criminalisation of Islam is but another step in a policy that goes back decades. The intention behind the policy is clear. The security service can’t watch everybody all of the time, so enlisting the help of the community is crucial and in many ways no bad thing. This time though, things have gone further.

Turning their classrooms into a “police state” has never before been asked of teachers. Most observers of radicalisation will tell you that education is crucial in stopping young people wanting to fight, that debate in classrooms can often benefit, particularly in places where schools have large minority populations.

In London’s east there are many schools that are predominately Muslim. So the plight of Muslims the world over for some of the pupils is clearly going to be of concern. Address it. Talk about Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, ISIL, Syria, Iraq. Talk about Western foreign policy.

Teachers are there to teach

Find that politically engaged young man who is angry and bring his anger out in the open. Do it in schools. Let him vent about America and Israel. Don’t report him to the authorities. Don’t let him be approached by a security services officer or be put on a watch list for having an opinion. Engage with him. Teach him. If he is criminalised for having an opinion, where his anger might lead him is anyone’s guess.

“Jihadi John”, the Briton who in many ways became the face of ISIL brutality when he appeared in murderous videos issued by the group, should be a case study in schools about the dangers of radicalisation, not an example of why we should spy on our children.

Stopping radical behaviour begins at home, in school, and in places of worship. Education and engagement in all of those areas is crucial if we’re to stop a generation of children from being criminalised simply because they pray to the east.

Others though are not so sure. Some politicians in Britain are openly calling for “British values” ‎to be taught in schools, although what those are seems to be less clear. Tolerance? Freedom of expression? Diversity?

Even to the most casual of observers, asking teachers to spy on pupils is intolerant, and suppresses freedom of expression and diversity.

What might the security services be looking for and asking teachers to report on? Travel plans are one potential area. That wedding of your cousin in Pakistan in the summer? That will be noted.

The kind of websites you visit is another potential area, so be careful about anything with the word Islam in it. Want to march in solidarity with Palestinians? That will also be noted.

It’s been around 66 years since George Orwell published his novel 1984. In that twisted, dystopian vision of the future was a warning that the UK was headed towards a police state. These new guidelines may have just taken us a step closer to that nightmarish vision. 

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