Dr Laura Zahra McDonald
Of all the safeguarding strands, for some, it is not an exaggeration to say that policy and practice around Prevent can be perceived as stigmatising, scary and ineffective. We’ve seen cases where policy has been mis/translated into discriminatory practice. And we’ve seen cases where responses to legislation such as the CTSA 2015 Prevent duty are tick box exercises in uninspiring basic training.
However, there are many examples where preventative approaches to violence and extremism have got it right. They have built on learning (the good and the bad) and positively impacted on the lives of young people and adults alike.
This is the mixed and complex context in which ConnectFutures operates. We aim to navigate sensitive and challenging issues by working across sector and practitioner silos. Alongside young people and communities, to use experience and knowledge together, to face these challenges differently and prevent violence, exploitation and extremism. We do this creatively, engagingly and effectively.
We have worked with over 40,000 young people including through the BRAVE programme (Building Resilience to Violence and Exploitation). We run this with our national partner St Giles Trust, and many thousands of teachers and other practitioners. This has given us insights and perspectives that may be useful to members of AoC and contribute to a conversation through which we can share ideas to improve all our work in this arena.
Two sides of the preventative coin
There are fundamental safeguarding elements that must be considered but we need to acknowledge that the challenges young people and our society face are not neat, separate, unrelated strands, but interwoven, interrelated and intersecting issues. It is always useful to state the obvious, that when we talk about knife crime, or hate crime or terror attacks, we need to consider the connections.
Vulnerabilities to exploitation can open a person up to many forms of exploitation. None of it happens in a vacuum. The same challenges that leave someone exposed to exploitation by extremist groups, are very often the same or parallel to those exploited by criminal gangs engaged in county lines exploitation, for sexual exploitation and traffickingand for acts of violence to non-ideological peer on peer attacks.
We delivered training in Serbia recently, to capacity-build practitioners. What struck us were the issues, not only the rise of Far-Right politics and hate crime, but also organised football hooliganism and youth unemployment. The question at the table wasn’t just how to challenge individuals about their personal political beliefs, it was how can we make systemic positive change in this challenging context?
And that pulls us back to the two-sided coin. First, we must respond to the immediate safeguarding needs. This includes the training in foundational knowledge for staff and students about the issues and how to recognise them. And, practical actions to stop them. Although it is not usually applied to safeguarding against violent extremism, we believe that the contextual safeguarding framework is a great place to start with this. This includes viewing safeguarding with a wide lens. To ensure knowledge is wide and deep enough to understand our localities and ensure that practical action addresses the range of issues. We can ask ourselves:
- Why are there more young people engaging in violence on a particular day or in a particular place?
- What layers of context is a young person’s actions occurring within?
- How do the offline lives of a college community impact on online activity, and vice versa?
In this way we safeguard across the issues with our eyes on the bigger picture. As well as the immediate challenge, we see the community and the systemic, as well as the individual and subjective.
How can we make the longer term, positive change?
Colleges are an exciting space where young people are transitioning to full adulthood. Where young people can take responsibilities and actions in their own capacities, in meaningful partnership with their college institutions. Once we learn about the challenges and intersections around safeguarding, we can start to get creative with positivity and practicality.
Let’s ask, how can we be creative and take our practice from special one offs to something longer term? The exciting bit is working with young people to co-create environments and make changes that are deep and enriching. Prevention isn’t spotting an issue and stopping it getting worse. We need to consider how to continue building on our work, to create environments in which young people can flourish. Environments which address fears, challenges and concerns, and also aspirations, dreams and positive actions.
My co-director at ConnectFutures Professor Lynn Davies and the ConnectFutures team has carried out extensive international research to review what works to prevent violence and extremism.
From this body of research I’d like to share five key findings that can help us action the proactive, creative elements of our safeguarding:
Preventing violence and extremism works when:
- Staff have had good (i.e. more than superficial) preparation to be able to discuss controversial issues
- Programmes are non-prescriptive, not moralising, but lead to independent thinking
- A wider range of actors are involved in the roll-out of programmes, especially or young people
- A multitude of drivers of extremism and exploitation are acknowledged, and all of the intersections are considered
- A practical and visible outcome is achieved. Where learners are not just recipients of ‘interventions’ but become active in work themselves.
In conclusion here are some ideas and questions rather than top tips. You are the college leaders and you are the experts in your environments:
- How can we develop ways to partner students more effectively? How can we co-create actions and solutions that use their expertise as well as ours? How can this be an inclusive process that also considers gender, when issues of violence are so often framed around boys?
- In what ways can we increase the opportunities to create truly candid open and safe spaces. Spaces where people can raise questions, grievances and controversial ideas and explore them, and be challenged without fear or being shut down?
- How can we use the opportunities for enrichment time in creative ways? I have seen brilliant work based in colleges, from film making, similar to our own, to capture voices and raise issues, to student-led programmes that break down misconceptions of different communities within the college.
- And finally, how can we embed these actions in the long term, as a matter of daily habit rather than one off moments?
The answers to these questions are not always obvious or easy but they are always worth doing.
Laura will be speaking at AoC’s Safe Sites, Safe Colleges Conference on 4 February. For more information