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​New UK law places duty on teachers to prevent terrorism

In February 2015, the UK Counter-Terrorism and Security Act received royal assent and became law.  The purpose, background, and content of the legislation are summarized in this fact sheet.  From the standpoint of countering radicalization into violence, the new law imposes a “general duty on specified authorities” — to include teachers and schools — as follows:  “A specified authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”

According to the head of “the largest teachers’ union” in the UK, teachers are “feeling very vulnerable and on the frontline… They are becoming very nervous about difficult conversations because they are worried about saying the wrong thing.”  The concern is understandable, as the positive legal duty assigned to teachers is a significant and serious responsibility.  Against this background, the provision in question has been characterized as, arguably, “the most controversial aspect of the act” by scholar and student alike.

Given the scale and persistence of the challenge posed by the radicalization of western youth into violence, and given the reality that teachers spend dozens of hours with their students each week, it’s not hard to comprehend (in principle, whether you agree with the idea or not) why classroom time could be seen as a potential opportunity to identify and act upon terror-related concerns.  Both in principle and in practice, however, the new statutory duty also begs the delicate question of parental responsibility:

“…the elephant in the room is the relationship between the children and the parents, which is a common factor in a lot of cases of youngsters bunking off to Syria. There is a mutual lack of awareness about what the other is doing, which isn’t just an issue in Muslim families, but a general social issue.”  (Dr. Matthew Wilkinson)

While lack of awareness within the family may not be a new issue, social media amplify the problem exponentially by facilitating independent, instantaneous, and global outreach.  From parents to teachers to police, a panoply of parties in the UK now have important and challenging roles, either assigned or inherent, in terms of countering radicalization to violence.  As always, operationalizing the principle — in this case the whole of society approach to countering terrorism — will be more difficult that conceptualizing it.