This blog has been slowly forming in my mind since I heard that a bomb had gone off in Manchester.
I knew. I just knew the bomber would have a link to Burnage Academy for Boys. I worked there for three years, arriving a few months after the bomber left. I was head of science in what was at the time a challenging school, yet one that was steadily improving and moving away from the school the bomber would have known. It is still a challenging school and this event will challenge the school and its pupils further.
A previous colleague of mine wrote about the school in the days that followed. It’s taken me until now to figure out why reading it made me sad. The article described the child that became the terrorist as ‘averagely lazy’ and ‘dislikeable’. He had given up on him before he sat his GCSEs. I wouldn’t dream of making excuses for a terrorist, but there are reasons why children who disengage from British values go on to be influenced by extremists with such devastating consequences. The Prevent strategy is intended to ensure extremists can’t influence our youngsters in this way. In this case at least the Prevent strategy has failed. Any strategy reduced to a PowerPoint on an inset day and a tick box on a lesson observation form will fail. This is too important to reduce to an ineffective senior leader’s slide deck.
There is a better way. Seeing the child behind the behaviour; having empathy for where a child has come from, and being aspirational on their behalf for the good they can do in the world. There were boys at Burnage Academy for Boys who had lived a life before and during their days at the school that gave them the potential to follow the same tragic path as the terrorist. But they didn’t follow that path. They work hard, they achieve well and they go on to make their families and teachers proud. We as teachers can’t take the credit for all of the boys’ achievements, but some teachers at that school can take absolute responsibility for some of those boys’ successes. They are the brave ones who demonstrate love in all that they do. They listen to the stories and fears of the most vulnerable pupils in their care and they fearlessly challenge the influence of those who seek to divert children’s thinking towards extremism. And they make a difference. There is at least one boy I know personally who was kept on the right path despite being startlingly close to headline hitting extremist events, simply by influencing more than the Islamic extremists.
However, the potential for evil influence remains and we must review how far the Prevent strategy is working and what needs to be done differently to make it successful in preventing future attacks. It did not work for Salman Abedi. It is likely we had failed him before he left school. He lived in a divided community and was vulnerable to the evil influence of those who pray on disaffected youngsters like him. Those influencers surround communities who have a tough time just by living in the UK. This attack and others like it are driven by hate. Those that execute them have experienced hate. We, as teachers have not protected those in British schools from hate or given them the skills to deflect evil influence. We could. If we’re brave enough to accept that our current strategy doesn’t work.
We can make it work. Before the coalition government came in, the Prevent strategy in my local authority focussed on critical thinking and philosophy. Together with an LA colleague we trained teachers in P4C with a view to giving children the skills to think for themselves so they could recognise and critically evaluate dissonant ideology. It wasn’t even that expensive. The challenge is in getting school leaders to see another way. Some have great pride in those slides and shiny printed policies.
We can’t afford to continue to accept this approach. The One Love event tonight in honour of those who died had a consistent message of love defeating hate. We can lead our youngsters with love. We can defeat the hate they experience with love. We will need to display extreme bravery to do this. Speaking as someone who has experienced death threats from the community I am defending, I truly understand the bravery required. This will be a tough gig but there is no other way.