Combatting radicalisation in FE: lessons of experience

Polly Harrow – ETF Associate, Assistant Principal at Kirklees College and Chair of the National Association of Managers of Student Services (Namss) – reflects on 20 years combatting radicalisation in FE and her experience of two particular students, and considers what practitioners can learn from the interventions she has been involved in.

For many in education, Contest, the government counter terrorism strategy, and specifically the Prevent Duty, became widely known in 2015. The initial iteration of Contest was, in fact, first written in 2003, and first published in 2006, and contained from the outset the four key strands of Pursue, Prevent, Pursue and Prepare, which remain in the current Contest strategy today.

When the Prevent Duty for education was first introduced, I had already been involved with a case which had occurred a few years before, and I was to be significantly involved in a very different case the year the duty came into force. Recently, I have had cause to muse over both cases and in this blog I will attempt to draw out the key learnings.

The shy student lured by right-wing rhetoric

The first case involved a White British student, a 17-year-old male, who lived with his mother, and was studying on a Business course. He was a fairly quiet, moderately shy young man, who was, to all intents and purposes, an excellent attender and a well-behaved student who got on well with his peers. I’ll call the student Mark, for the purposes of this blog.

The college where I worked at the time, and its local population, had very low ethnic diversity and was in an active area for groups promoting extreme right-wing ideology. That is why I was already involved with the equivalent of a local Prevent Team; we were regularly raising concerns about attempts to recruit our students to extremist causes.

As a result, we had requested and engaged with some staff development opportunities, delivered by the anti-terrorist police department to their own staff, which raised awareness and understanding of radicalisation and the core potential signifiers to watch out for. This was, looking back, quite radical in itself, as the focus of the Contest strategy was, post 9/11, on Al Qaeda; the threat posed by extreme right-wing extremists wasn’t yet in clear focus as it is now.

Noticing a change

When Mark (our student) became distracted and quite sullen in class, a personal tutor noticed and asked him about his wellbeing in a tutorial one to one. Mark informed her that he had argued badly with his mother and had moved out to live with his sister and brother-in-law and their two small children. The tutor noted that Mark appeared angry and more outspoken than usual.

When Mark came in with a shaved head, she noticed, and when Mark doodled in class and threw the paper in the bin, she retrieved it.

Mark had drawn a swastika, and an arrow with the word ‘kill’. Where Mark had been sitting, the arrow would have been pointing in the direction of his classmate, Bilal.

This was reported to me and I, in turn, reported it to the Police team. I can’t recall now the actual name of the unit, perhaps ‘anti-terrorist team’, I can’t be sure. Mark subsequently came to college one day to say he would be absent ‘next Wednesday’ and reluctantly disclosed that he was going to London on a coach for the day. Now this might sound quite normal, but it really wasn’t. One stark characteristic of the student community was a low level of aspiration and a palpable lack of desire/confidence to travel to even the local cities, let alone the capital. London was a long way away, and this was a ‘big thing’.

It was later discovered that a protest march had been organised by an extreme right-wing group, which was taking place ‘next Wednesday’.


To cut to the chase, Mark was subsequently found in a car, with four adult males (one of whom was his brother-in-law) with weapons, and a plan to cause violent harm to some targeted Asian males.

When the police arrived at the brother-in-law’s house, they found Nazi paraphernalia including a large Nazi flag and a picture of Hitler above the fireplace. It was so blatant, the police initially thought it had been staged.

This case did not come under the ‘Prevent’ banner, as such, as it was in the criminal domain, and whilst Mark ended up in court and received a suspended sentence, his brother-in-law received a term of imprisonment.

I am not sure if Channel even existed then, not as we know it now anyway, but I remember it being recognised that Mark was a victim of radicalisation and that he needed intervention to help him make sense of it all.

My overall belief, to this day, is that without the staff training and good communication with the police team, that intended violent crime would not have been disrupted. Mark’s doodles would not have been retrieved from the bin and though I cannot be sure, I doubt that Mark’s shaved head would have got much more than a second glance. Certainly, Mark would have participated in the planned violent attack and would have fared much worse through the justice system.

So, what do we know?

We know, from our ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, that Mark was actually presenting with behaviours his mother found very challenging at home, despite not giving any signs of that behaviour in college.

We know that Mark’s mother actually ‘kicked him out’ after a particularly bad argument.

We know that we were not aware of that, until Mark disclosed it at a one-to-one personal tutorial.

We know that Mark took refuge with his sister, whose partner had become actively involved with an extremist group, which Mark was swiftly recruited into.

We know that Mark was quite shy, but became more outwardly confident and that his physical appearance changed.

We know that he made clear (literal) signs in his doodling of his allegiance to Nazi ideology and that he made, I believe, an open threat to a non-white classmate.

We know that Mark was angry and upset, about having to leave his home, and that he was vulnerable to his brother-in-law’s persuasion and aggressive rhetoric. We know that Mark did not consider, or evaluate, the information he was receiving to check its veracity.

In all the guidance made available to us in 2015, we know that Prevent is designed for intervention before any criminal activity has occurred and that was not sadly the case for Mark. The intelligence gathered at the time would, post 2015, have been plenty for a channel panel to swiftly consider.

I think about Mark from time to time and wonder what happened to him. The last thing I was told was that he had been very emotional after his arrest and distanced himself from the group, showing remorse and confusion. He just wanted to go home to his mum.

The student seduced by lies about Syria

The next case I am referencing in this blog occurred a few years after the introduction of the Prevent Duty, and I was working at a different and much more culturally diverse college by then. On arrival at my new college, and due to my previous experience, I immediately pursued contact with the anti-terrorist police unit, much to their surprise and appreciation.

I was then able to put in place staff and student development along the same lines as before, and put dedicated sessions in the tutorial planner, unaware as I was that the 2015 duty was soon to land, and so we would find ourselves in a fairly strong position when that duty actually arrived.

The intervention

It was in 2015 that I had a report, again from a personal tutor, that a female student had raised a concern about something she had seen on a fellow student’s Facebook page. The post she had seen read ‘I cannot wait to go jihad and leave this land of kuffaar’. The student, a 17-year-old Asian male, was a good attender, achieving well, a member of the local football team and well supported by a loving family.

I referred this to my local Prevent team and Channel panel. Alongside external support, a member of the Prevent team and I met the student and talked to him about the post. Initially claiming his account had been hacked, he then changed his story and said that he had indeed written it, and shared a lot of detailed information about British involvement in Syria, and what was happening there. All of his ‘information’ was wildly inaccurate or simply untrue and it took some time to unpick it all. Along with the colleague from the Prevent team, we met a number of times with the student and he engaged in some really thoughtful dialogue with us, expressing serious surprise that what he thought was true was in fact provably not the case.

A few months later, two of the student’s close friends made their way to Syria, one becoming the ‘UK’s youngest ever suicide bomber’. The link between the three boys was swiftly identified, and life from that moment changed, for all of us.

Things I remember

Going to see the student at his home, his mother and father weeping, fearful, bewildered and confused.

The student showing me messages he had received from his friends in Syria, messages which filled him with guilt and shame for not having travelled with them, as was the plan, mixed with relief that he did not go.

The mother expressing her fear that her son would ‘run off to Syria’. Me reassuring her that, under this level of scrutiny, he couldn’t go to the corner shop without us knowing.

The student, distressed, grieving his dead friend, saying ‘I just want my normal life back’.

There’s a lot I have left out, but this case has never left me. The impact on both him and his family left a profound impression on me and I recall the student’s tangled emotions as he swung from regret to relief. I won’t ever forget the messages I saw either, the commanding voice through text about what must be done, the insults which cut him to the quick, the accusations of traitorship and the demands for action in the UK.

The student eventually withdrew from his course, despite every effort to support him through.

So, what do we know?

We know that in terms of push and pull factors, there was no unhappiness or disaffection at home or at college.

We know that one of the biggest influential factors in radicalisation is a lack in knowledge and understanding and that was the case here; the student’s information, wherever it was coming from, was full of myth, hyperbole and downright lies.

We know that a statement of intent is sometimes made prior to terrorist or extremist activity, such as the Facebook post.

We know that the student had planned to leave with his friends but did not go. When asked what had changed his mind, he said “…they explained to me at college what was really going on, it was nothing like ‘they’ said”.

Without the training, would the female student have reported the Facebook post? Would that have been immediately referred to me? Would we have been able to intervene and, unwittingly, stop that young man from travelling to Syria to a probable early death? We had no idea of his plans at the time, they only became clear after his friend had died a suicide bomber and also a mass murderer.

What we can learn from these experiences

What we have learned overall, is that staff and student training and awareness raising of radicalisation and extremism is absolutely vital. We understand the importance of ‘notice, check, share’ and we promote this strongly across our College. We know that one small, seemingly insignificant observation might provide a key piece in the larger picture, so share everything, no matter how small. We know to stay curious about our students, to know our students and to recognise changes in presentation or behaviour.

As the years roll on, we maintain a fierce commitment to ensuring Prevent training is embedded in both staff and student inductions and refreshed at regular intervals. We continue to update our Prevent Strategy, Policy and action plan and we report all referrals to our Safeguarding Committee and Corporation Board.

The global situation might have changed, the national position might change, the Shawcross review of Prevent has been published to very mixed reviews; but it is so important that we do not lose focus and stay vigilant.

The biggest lesson for me personally: you never know what impact you are having, what changes a single intervention may bring about, what gap in knowledge you are filling in, what course of action you are influencing and, ultimately, what lives you could be saving.