The UK plans to ask preschool teachers to report toddlers who they believe are at risk of radicalization, in an anti-terror measure that has been widely ridiculed as unrealistic and perplexing.
The proposals, laid out in a 39-page consultation document, are part of the British Home Office's Prevent anti-terrorism strategy, and accompany the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill which is currently before the country's parliament.
A child psychologist dismissed the proposals as "baffling" and told VICE News that the indicators suggested by government ministers could easily be regarded as "normal development behavior" — but at least one union is considering the proposals.
According to the document, teachers at schools and universities will be expected to be able to "identify children at risk of being drawn into terrorism and challenge extremist ideas which can be used to legitimize terrorism and are shared by terrorist groups."
The news that childcare providers and nurseries would also be expected to report suspicious children was roundly mocked — even by politicians representing the party behind the proposal. Conservative MP David Davis broke ranks to tell the Telegraph that the proposals were "heavy handed," adding sarcastically: "Are they supposed to report some toddler who comes in praising a preacher deemed to be extreme?"
One of the nursery staff unions VICE News spoke to said it was "considering" the proposals, however. Deborah Lawson, General Secretary of Voice, a union for education professionals, said: "Early years professionals already deal appropriately and sensitively with issues that could put a child at risk, regardless of what they might be, working with families and the appropriate authorities as necessary."
The practical implementation of the proposals hinges on the question of whether it is actually possible to spot the signs of extremist sympathies in a young child; however, the document does not outline what behavior to look for. A source told the Telegraph that ministers will expect nursery staff to report anti-Semitic comments or instances where a Muslim child has been taught that non-Muslims are wicked.
Dr Rachel Andrew, a clinical psychologist specializing in child development, said that neither of these examples were anywhere near enough to suggest a child could become drawn into terrorism.
"I'm not sure what they're looking for," she told VICE News. "A lot of that could be viewed as normal developed behaviour with most children."
Dr Andrew added that it was not possible to tell whether a three-year-old would grow up to be a terrorist from their behavior alone. She said it was unlikely that anti-semitic comments would meet the threshold for referral to the relevant authorities, and there would need to be "other factors" present.
"It could be indicative of any number of things. Not that they're at risk of radicalization. It could be indicative of normal childhood development; it could also be indicative that there are other issues.
"They might well be vulnerable. But to pinpoint it as something so specific would be a worry."
A referral or inclusion on a watch list could also end up isolating the child and their family, she said.
"If families saw documents where things like that had been noted about them, I would have thought it might be damaging of good relationships between families and the people educating their children."
Ben Thomas, national officer for children's services at the trade union UNISON, told VICE News: "Asking nursery staff who care for two-year-olds to be on the lookout for signs of radicalization is a nonsense.
"Nursery school employees are already stretched to the limit and the government would be better off diverting resources to drastically improving their pay and conditions. Nursery staff shoulder enormous responsibility in caring for and educating young people, and yet the vast majority are paid barely the minimum wage."
A government spokesperson said: "Schools, including nurseries, have a duty of care to their pupils and staff. The new duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism will be seen in a similar way to their existing safeguarding responsibilities.
"We are not expecting teachers and nursery workers to carry out unnecessary intrusion into family life but we do expect them to take action when they observe behavior of concern. It is important that children are taught fundamental British values in an age-appropriate way."
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