The Prevent duty and its implications for school and college staff.

The NEU advises schools and colleges on the importance of considering the Prevent duty alongside the schools’ safeguarding duties and alongside the requirements to avoid discrimination and to actively promote equality.

This guidance aims to provide insights which relate to some of the complex questions which the Prevent duty throws up in schools, including how to avoid referrals which aren’t proportionate or necessary.  

Prevent is a national safeguarding duty but requires staff to exercise their professional judgement carefully and in consultation with the DSL. This requires whole school discussion, so that staff can understand their role but also the importance of taking context into account and using other policies where more appropriate. 

Prevent referrals

A Prevent referral is the process where concerns about a student or staff member who is believed to be “susceptible to radicalisation” are passed onto the police for assessment at a multi-agency Channel panel. The latest Home Office figures show that between April 2022 and March 2023, 6,817 people were referred to Prevent. Over 2,100 referrals were for children under the age of 14, including 256 individuals under the age of 10. (Amnesty report, 'This is the Thought Police’, November 2023)


According to government, Channel is a voluntary, confidential programme which safeguards people identified as vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. It is a multi-agency process, involving partners from the local authority, the police, education, health providers and others. Of the 6000+ people referred to Prevent between April 2022 and May 2023, less than one in ten were referred to Channel.


Radicalisation, according to the DfE, is ‘the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and extremist ideologies associated with terrorist groups’. (Keeping Children Safe in Education, KCSIE)

The terms radicalisation and  ‘extremism’ should not be stretched to include comments or views which are deemed ‘offensive’ or ‘divisive’.

It will be necessary for schools to take action with relevant partner agencies where young people are being drawn into, or committing criminal behaviour, and to establish if young people are being groomed or are under the influence of adults who pose harm to the student. The relevant partners can be youth workers, youth offending teams, social services, mental health teams or local youth projects. Schools should feel confident to consider this range of options to identify the appropriate referral. 


Government agencies define extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. 

Making proportionate judgments

Prevent places statutory duties on schools and colleges. However, Prevent documentation makes it clear that the implementation of these duties relies upon the judgement of school and college staff.  

The judgement of education staff is crucial to decisions about the referral of a student to Prevent. These are weighty decisions, with potential implications for the well-being of children, young people and their families. 

For this reason, the government’s Prevent guidance warns against unconsidered actions. It reminds professionals that there will be many times when Prevent referrals are not suitable. (Prevent online ‘referral course’ on 

Children and young people shouldn’t be referred to Prevent unless the context of their behaviour has been fully explored. It is very important, according to the online Prevent referrals course, to take ‘social, cultural, regional and historical considerations into account and to explore and discover alternative explanations’ for behaviour. Prevent Guidance recommends a ‘notice, check, share’ process for making referrals; they should not in other words be based on the decisions of individuals.

Carefully considering the context of an incident 

Prevent guidance reminds settings to take the following factors into account, as with all safeguarding: adolescence as a period of transition; disability; domestic abuse; family breakdown; financial support; gang/group membership; homelessness; illness; learning disabilities; youth offending; loss/bereavement; mental health; sexual abuse; being socially excluded; trauma from conflict; being a victim of crime; or a victim of hate crime.  Thus, in some cases, what appears to be a matter of radicalisation may be better seen as one of ‘grooming’ and thus of violence against women and girls. 

Referrals should be avoided ’where facts are not correct. It is imperative to separate facts from assertions, assumptions and stereotypes’’. (Prevent online ‘referral course’ on

 Despite these caveats, the referral process is frequently utilised in ways that are disproportionate and not fully considered, suggesting a need for school and college staff to exercise caution in implementing it. 

Amnesty International UK notes that in a high proportion of cases, referrals to Prevent are not followed by further action. 

  • Eighty-seven per cent of referrals are not judged worthy of further action. 
  • This suggests that many individuals are being referred without a ‘sense check’, or the pre-referral assessment which the Prevent Guidance signals as important. 

Enabling young people to express views about contentious issues

It’s important to keep a distinction between fixed ideologies and young people expressing opinions or views which are an attempt to make sense of the world or repeat what they have heard. 

The Prevent guidance also reminds education settings of the importance of open discussion saying:

‘Education settings should be spaces in which people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including, where appropriate, terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology, and learn how to challenge these ideas.  When doing so, settings should encourage learners to respect other people, with particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. Further and higher education institutions must have particular regard to a need or relevant duty to ensure freedom of speech.’

The role of bias in who might be referred

The risk and harm from  ‘just in case’ referrals

National figures suggest there is a bias in the application of Prevent. Dislike of, or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force, can come into play.  

Prevent training claims that there can be ‘consistency in the assessment of referrals across all ideologies and all concerns related to radicalisation’ and that any potential bias or discrepancies from applying different thresholds based on ideology can be avoided. 

This, however, is not what is happening in practice. The pressure to make 'better safe than sorry' referrals is evident from the data. Only 28% of 'Islamist' referrals were then progressed to a Channel panel discussion in 2021-22. Many incidents are being referred to Prevent without good reason. 

Prevent has therefore given rise to serious questions from human rights and civil society groups, for its discrimination against Muslims, creating an atmosphere where Muslim students and/or Muslim staff are treated as a suspect community, with a resultant ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression.  

Referrals to Prevent should not rely on gut instinct: reliance on such ‘instinct’ may explain the very high number of referrals made by schools and colleges. To ensure proportionate, considered, and non-prejudiced referrals, it is crucial to follow your safeguarding policies and procedures. Anti-racism and equality training is also important. 

Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) should exercise their professional judgment, and consider the context for the individual, before determining if a referral is proportionate to the assessed risk. 

Involving SENCO where actions of students with autism are being discussed

There's a disproportionate representation of neurodiverse individuals and children in Prevent referrals. 

The Shawcross Review of Prevent, commissioned by the government, found that ‘a significant number of cases referred to Channel involve some element of mental health concern, and/or complex needs [including] young people on the autistic spectrum.’ Some autism features could be mistaken for signs of radicalisation in the Prevent context, such as ‘intense interests [and] the drive to collect facts and figures about a topic’. Autistic people are also more likely to be ‘misunderstood or misperceived by other people’ including public sector staff subject to the Prevent duty. (Amnesty report, November 2023). 

Differentiating expression of unacceptable opinions from legitimate discussion and learning

Schools and colleges must promote a shared understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour and language. This needs to be a matter of ongoing discussion, where the school/college’s values and ethos are promoted and students are encouraged to think about the impact of their words on others.  

Only in such a context can decisions about whether Prevent referrals are legitimate be sensibly made. 

Encouraging open discussion among staff is crucial, ensuring that referrals to Prevent are 

  • made thoughtfully and 
  • with consideration for individual context and 
  • not driven by anxiety and fear. 

Making considered judgments about the expression of political views by staff or students is essential and will foster an environment where both students and staff can engage in positive and respectful dialogue. The goal should be an open and thoughtful learning environment- where it is clear which sort of points of view can be expressed legitimately without concern and learners do not feel they have to self-censor on issues that are important to them. 

Ultimately, the duty to make a referral lies with the institution, not the individual, emphasising the need for careful and informed decision-making. 

The Prevent duty sits within wider safeguarding responsibilities and should be part of the wider approach of your school or college to keeping children and young people safe in education. Staff should therefore make use of existing safeguarding processes and procedures. Professionals and DSLs have the right to exercise their professional judgment in determining what is necessary and proportionate in their roles

Expressing views about Israel, Palestine or other conflicts

Given the very broad definition of ‘extremism’ by the Government, SLTs and DSLs should act sensibly and proportionately.  The term ‘extremism’ should not be stretched to include comments deemed ‘offensive’ or ‘divisive’. 

Only where a clear risk of radicalisation exists, should a Prevent referral be relevant.

It is legitimate for schools or colleges to sensibly support young people to explore the reasons that lie behind the Israel/Palestine conflict and to calmly express views, feelings and questions appropriately. 

Expressing support for the Palestinian people and wanting to express concern for the historical or current plight of Palestinians is not an extreme view.  

Where children or young people display intolerant or stereotypical views, or views which are racist or antisemitic, it is the role of the school/college to determine a holistic response, with a presumption that school should be a place where young people can learn, make mistakes, reflect and have access to additional and fairer ideas through the wider curriculum. 

Using the whole curriculum and a range of learning strategies to support all children and young people to discuss difficult and contentious subjects with empathy, reflection and nuance should be the goal. The NEU has advice for teaching about issues of conflict which develops this approach further. 

According to the Metropolitan Police, the current conflict has led to increased Prevent referrals. 

The NEU does not think a Prevent referral would be a proportionate response to:

  • A teacher expressing support for a Palestine solidarity campaign.
  • Students wishing to discuss concerns about the Israeli attacks on Gaza and human rights in Gaza.
  • Students condemning the 7 October attacks on Israeli people or the holding of hostages by Hamas in strong terms.

The threat of referral to Prevent should not be used as a means of deterring such discussion.

Existing school behaviour and HR disciplinary policies will be the relevant route for a problematic pattern of racist or sexist behaviour or a serious incident involving racism, sexual harassment, violence or threats of violence.  

The impact of an unnecessary Prevent referral on staff member or young person

Staff must be aware that Muslim students can feel under surveillance and suspicion; unable to express their religious views; and unable to express personal beliefs about the world. 

A student referred unnecessarily to Prevent can experience life-changing impacts: a serious loss of trust in the school/college or other state institutions; stress, anxiety and other mental health consequences; and worries over their privacy and data protection. These impacts will be felt by their families too. These impacts also occur for staff members who are unnecessarily referred. 

It is not just that individual referrals have a negative impact on one student - it is also the case that the Prevent strategy collectively has a cultural impact which schools and colleges need to actively discuss and be cognisant about. 

Schools and colleges must operate in ways that don’t create discriminatory patterns under the Equality Act. The requirement to avoid discrimination and foster equality between different groups of pupils is equally important and runs alongside the requirement to report extremism.  

Other relevant information when thinking about referral

Education staff know the children and young people in their care well, including the dynamics of peer groups, their families, and the local community. 

Building up a picture of students and discussions with form tutors and class teachers can make it easier to spot potential harmful influences while keeping children and young people safe from harm.

As with all areas of safeguarding, responses to concerns should be proportionate to the perceived risk. Proper assessments must be made and the context of the concern about the child or young person must be considered. 

Any risks faced by children and young people must be responded to and discussed immediately with a Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL).

Discussing the relationship between Prevent and safeguarding

The NEU believes that it is important for Reps and workplace groups to 

  • discuss with managers the issues set out, given the potentially serious impact;
  • have an opportunity to discuss the Prevent duty in a whole staff setting, and the questions and areas in this advice.
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