Nearly 4,000 people were referred to the Government’s flagship de-radicalisation scheme last year – almost two and a half times more than the previous year. But although it was designed to tackle Islamic State radicalisation, just one third of those referred were Muslims.
Figures released by the National Police Chief Council under the Freedom of Information Act show that 3,955 people were referred to Channel, the government’s anti-radicalisation program last year. The figures – the first since the government introduced a requirement for local authorities, prisons, NHS Trusts and schools to monitor for and report possible radicalisation taking place within their walls – represent a substantial rise from the 2014 total of 1,681.
West Midlands was the only region which provided a detailed breakdown of its figures, showing that 354 referrals were made by schools or educational establishments. But despite concerns over the growing number of radical Islamists travelling to and from Syria, just 293 of the 788 referrals were Muslims, equivalent to 37 per cent The Guardian has reported.
Guidelines for the Channel program explain that its purpose is to tackle far-right and other forms of extremism, as well as Islamic extremism.
Again in the West Midlands, of the 788 people referred to Channel in the West Midlands last year, 68 were children aged nine or under, 183 were 10-14 and 235 were aged 15-19. The figure for under nine year olds is broadly in line with national figures released in January, which showed that 415 of the total figure of 3,955 were children aged 10 or under.
But the Midlands’ figure for secondary school age children is lower than the national average, as nationally 1,424 secondary school-aged children, between 11 and 15, were referred – 36 per cent of the total.
Dr Erin Saltman, a senior counter-extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, described the overall figure as “highly significant”.
“It’s indicative of a couple of things,” she said. “One is that there’s a huge amount of awareness around radicalisation that just didn’t exist before – it’s now a buzzword whereas five years ago it wouldn’t have been.
“The other is an increase in fear. We are seeing an increase in fearful rhetoric around radicalisation, particularly when we see foreign terrorist fighters and females in unprecedented numbers joining ISIS.”
Home Secretary Theresa May made plans to strengthen Channel a central part of her Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. That strategy aimed to tackle the mounting threat posed by Islamic State fighters, which Mrs May said had brought “energy and a renewed sense of purpose to subversive Islamist organisations and radical leaders” in Britain.
The new law requires prison governors to consider the use of cell-sharing risk assessments, as well as initial reception and induction interviews, while schools have been handed a new duty to protect pupils by preventing them from being drawn into extremism and terrorism.
But Dr Saltman, who runs a program aimed at countering violent extremism in young people, said there was not enough guidance for teachers on how to spot extremism taking hold.
“The real problem is that a lot of signifiers are things that would be considered normal teenage behaviour, like changes in dress, changes in ability to want to talk to teachers or parents,” she said.
“Teachers are fearful and want to safeguard students but they’re not being given very clear guidelines or training. What this will now do is shut down dialogue, rather than open up discourse and transparency within a classroom.”
Support for this view was provided last year by Mark Keary, the headteacher of Bethnal Green Academy which made headlines last year when four of its female pupils absconded to Syria to become jihadi brides.
Speaking at a Home Affairs select committee evidence session in Westminster in November, Mr Keary told MPs: “we still do not know what caused the radicalisation of the four girls. We do not know what were the principal agents, what made that significant shift and change, and what made them take that terrible decision.
He said that the girls’ radicalisation had been missed by the school because: “We were quite focused through the Prevent strategy [within which Channel sits] on looking for symptoms of radicalisation that on this occasion just simply did not come to light,” adding: “I think the evolving threat, particularly represented by the current situation and the speed of change, means that any legislative response or any strategy is in danger of becoming outmoded almost instantly, because tactics for recruitment and radicalisation appear to shift and change in response to those.”