‘It’s about keeping children safe, not spying’: A governmentality approach to Prevent in primary education

Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
The British Journal of Politics and
International Relations
2022, Vol. 24(2) 259 –276
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/13691481211021212
‘It’s about keeping children safe,
not spying’: A governmentality
approach to Prevent in primary
Raquel da Silva1, Giuditta Fontana2
and Megan A Armstrong3
From its inception in 2015, the Prevent Duty has required educators, and other members of
the social sector, to exercise ‘due regard’ in preventing pupils from being drawn into terrorism,
irrespective of the age of the child. This article explores how primary educators have understood
and implemented this preventative security policy in their schools. Analysis is based on a survey of
345 primary school educators and 37 semi-structured interviews with primary school educators
and Prevent Education Officers from the West Midlands. Through a lens of governmentality, we
shed light on how this mandate has been broadly interpreted and exercised by educators within
and outside the school gates. In so doing, we contribute to debates on the puzzling acceptance of
Prevent in education, on the process whereby educators identify threats, and on the securitisation
of educational spaces in a risk society.
education, governmentality, prevent, preventing violent extremism, primary education,
radicalisation, safeguarding
In January 2021, the Prevent Duty (PD) made headlines after a 4-year-old was referred to
the scheme after talking about a videogame at his after-school club in the West Midlands.
He was the latest of hundreds of primary-aged children referred to Channel: in 2016—
2019 alone, 624 children aged under 6 years and 1405 children aged 6–9 years were
reported to schemes for the prevention of violent extremism (Stein and Townsend, 2021).
Our study examines an original survey of 345 primary school educators, 32
semi-structured interviews with primary school educators, and 5 interviews with Prevent
1Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), Centro de Estudos Internacionais, Lisboa, Portugal
2Department of Political Sciences and International Studies, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
3School of Humanities and Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK
Corresponding author:
Raquel da Silva, Center for International Studies, ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute, Avenida das Forças
Armadas, 1649-026 Lisboa, Portugal.
Email: rbpsa@iscte-iul.pt
1021212BPI0010.1177/13691481211021212The British Journal of Politics and International Relationsda Silva et al.
Original Article
260 The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 24(2)
Education Officers (PEOs) from the West Midlands to explore the ways in which primary
school educators understand the PD, see their operational role within it, normalise it as
part of their everyday labour, and perceive extremism and vulnerability to extremism.
In this article, we reflect on the PD as emblematic of the spread of precautionary risk
governance into British society since 2001. Indeed, the Global War on Terror was consid-
ered by Aradau and van Munster (2007: 91) as ‘a new form of governmentality that
imbricates knowledge and decision at the limit of knowledge, war and strategies of sur-
veillance, injunctions to integration and drastic policies against anti-social behaviour’.
These authors underlined that the novelty brought by the War on terror was not as much
‘the advent of a risk society as the emergence of a “precautionary” element that has given
birth to new configurations of risk that require that the catastrophic prospects of the future
be avoided at all costs’ (Aradau and van Munster, 2007: 91). Through governmentality
(Foucault, 1991), Aradau and van Munster (2007: 103–104) analysed how precautionary
risk governs something apparently ungovernable as terrorism, giving preference to ‘dras-
tic prevention’ and to ‘forms of surveillance that target everybody, as the potential terror-
ist could be any of us’.
In our study, we explore how precautionary risk governance seeped into primary edu-
cation through PD. This occurred through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of
2015, which placed a globally unprecedented statutory duty on specified public sector
authorities to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into ter-
rorism’ (Home Office, 2015: 2). The introduction of PD into primary schools is part of
what Thomas calls the ‘Prevent 2’ phase (Thomas, 2017: 309). Prevent is one of four
strands of the UK counterterrorism strategy, CONTEST, which also includes Pursue,
Protect, and Prepare. This strategy reflects a general shift in the understanding of terror-
ism in security and counterterrorism policy from an externally focused threat following
9/11, to a more internally focused consideration of ‘home grown’ extremism after 7/7.
While ‘Prevent 1’ (2006–2011) was about community-based work with Muslim commu-
nities, violent extremism and police surveillance, ‘Prevent 2’ (2011–present) focuses on
individuals at risk of, or vulnerable to, radicalisation, who have to be identified and
referred to the anti-radicalisation mentoring scheme Channel (Thomas, 2017). The focus
of the strategy has also been extended to broader extremism (Miah, 2017a), and key pub-
lic sector areas – education, health, and social welfare – have been involved in counterter-
rorism surveillance (Heath-Kelly, 2018; Thomas, 2017).
There have been a number of empirical studies of PD in education (Busher, Choudhury,
and Thomas, 2019; Jerome and Busher, 2020), alongside a considerable amount of con-
ceptual work making sense of the policies surrounding it (Bryan, 2017; Jerome et al.,
2019; Sian, 2015, 2017; Stephens et al., 2019; Taylor and Soni, 2017). This scholarship,
covering the introduction of PD to wider elements of society (including education) as a
form of soft counterterrorism (Breen-Smyth, 2014; Ragazzi, 2017), has generated contro-
versy, critique, and alarm. It denounced the problematic implementation of PD with
respect to its understandings of radicalisation and extremism; the creation of ‘suspect
communities’ (Breen-Smyth, 2014); the subsumption of the PD within wider social prac-
tices and consequent securitisation of school curriculums and safeguarding regimes; and
the challenges to building children’s resilience to extremism.
Primary schools are underrepresented in this research, which is surprising given that
as many as 2029 primary-aged children were referred to the scheme between 2016 and
2019 alone (Stein and Townsend, 2021). In this article, we address this theoretical and
empirical gap drawing on the findings of fieldwork carried out in the West Midlands

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