‘The idea that social workers can predict who will become terrorists is science fiction’

Principal social worker Dr Tony Stanley argues that social workers need to challenge the Home Office’s Prevent agenda on radicalisation.

Photo: Ray Tang/REX

We live with the ever present risk of terrorism and violent extremism. It is part of life in contemporary Britain. Yet social work is sleep walking into a worrying new area – that of ‘pre-crime’.

This means, in social work terms, pre-determining which children are likely to go on to be harmed or will go on to become terrorists at some stage in the future. It sounds like something from the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report”.

It has been used in the Troubled Families area and is now being extrapolated out to determine in which families is child abuse likely to happen, and which children are likely to become home-grown terrorists.

By using local authority data, statistical, actuarial and criminogenic data (via algorithms), risk factors are woven together to establish predictions, that point out, or indicate, who is likely to go on to be abused, or, who is likely to become a terrorist.

Social workers need to understand this worrying development so that we point out the ethical and moral issues with this agenda – contributions that importantly distinguish us from the security or policing services.

The idea that we can pre-determine who is likely to be abused or become a terrorist is simply science fiction. It suggests risk in rather linear terms using a causal logic that we can, through statistical mathematics, locate and then resolve it. This is impossible. It represents an Orwellian development for social work and we need to take it on.

Prevent strategy

The radicalisation policy landscape is influential which is all the more reason for us to be speaking up about this.

The Prevent strategy works with local authorities, education, criminal justice, faith groups, charities, the online world and health to steer people away from radicalisation pathways.

The strategy defines radicalisation as ‘a process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism.’ Extremism is defined as a 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. ‘Violent extremism’ is an ‘endorsement of violence to achieve extreme ends’.

Sections 36 to 41 of the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) sets out a duty on local authorities (e.g. social workers) and partners (e.g. teachers, early childhood workers) to provide support for people vulnerable to being drawn into any form of terrorism – and report them to Prevent.

However, there are many very large and currently unanswered questions about this duty:

  • What happens if a family refuses to engage with the Prevent option?
  • What does this mean for the social justice and human rights agenda?
  • Where is ‘community’? And who is defining what this means now?
  • Where is family?
  • Do we invite extended family in? Are we encouraged to?
  • Do we trust them enough?
  • Why is child protection the dominant discourse? 

Supporting families


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Each of these questions leads to even more questions. As social workers our emphasis is on helping families and individuals – how might monitoring or reporting those families affect our work?

Was there any thought to how community-led and family-based approaches might offer an alternative to the Prevent option? Are we sanctioned to offer this? Family is an untapped resource; and family group conferences completely underutilised to date.

The relationship between social workers and the police needs to be clear. If social workers are seen as ‘soft police’ then there is no welfare offer – help may instead be experienced as control or monitoring.

Vulnerable people may then be left with few options and this increases pressure and distress for service users living with mental illness.

This work is professionally dominated, driven via a narrow securitising lens and, in my opinion, is seriously blurring the line between liberty and security for us and our service users.

Effective social work practice is achieved through relationships. With violent extremism, which is so evocative and highly charged (and where the consequences can be deadly) there is the potential for risk to be over-exaggerated. The media can heavily influence the paradigm in which we operate.

Effective supervision
What is clear is that in this work frequent, high quality supervision will be essential for social workers to remain supported, challenged and confident in their decision-making. Social workers require practice tools that are grounded in and facilitate a relational approach to risk.

I have used the Signs of Safety approach in cases of radicalisation risk. The Signs of Safety model offers a comprehensive approach to analysing danger, existing strengths and safety/protective factors and future safety and utilises a simple judgment scaling process that involves all of the people around the child. I used the danger statement and safety goal tools to help me be very clear about the worries I held for children in a home where extremist views were normalised.

The framework can be used with individuals and family groups, and community groups, to build safety and protection, and this method has offered me a useful and respectful way to work with radicalisation risks and violent extremism. The myth that this is an overly optimistic approach has not been borne out in my work.

Critical thinking

Practitioners also need to be politically aware. We need to be able to debate risk and understand how our work is influenced and the role we can play in influencing others.

We need to be clear on what social work can offer, and be aware of our limits. I would argue “pre-crime” is clearly a limit we need to be wary of and speak back to.

I have written to all principal social workers in England asking them about the practice issues they are finding about working with radicalisation risk. We need more practice informed evidence about what works and what may be doing more harm.

Helping families in this highly difficult terrain will not be easy.

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15 Responses to ‘The idea that social workers can predict who will become terrorists is science fiction’

  1. Mark Wogan August 25, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

    If MI5 cant figure this out (and they’re the experts) what hope do social workers have…

    • Karen Reeve August 26, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

      Well said!!

  2. Dave Ensor August 25, 2015 at 3:24 pm #

    My ability to predict the future will cease with the purchase of the correct 6 lottery numbers for the Euro Millions Roll-over lottery. After that …the govenrment is on its own. Fair enough?

  3. Jim Greer August 25, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

    As a Principal Lecturer in Social Work I attended Prevent training a couple of months ago in preparation for cascading the Prevent agenda to social work students and students from other professional groups. I did not receive any information about algorithms, mathematical modelling or any type of psychic prediction of the future.

    Basically, the purpose of the training is to make people more aware of the types of strategies used by some unscrupulous people to draw vulnerable people (such as very socially isolated or people with learning disability or mental health problems) into becoming involved with terrorism. There was no stereotyping or profiling suggested in what I was presented with. Nor was there the suggestion that terrorism or other politically motivated criminal acts were confined to any one religious, social or ethnic group.

    There were suggestions about changes in people’s social circle or habits or interests which could indicate that they might be vulnerable to becoming involved in extremist activities. However, it was made clear that these could equally be caused by a number of other social or personal issues. There was no suggestion that social workers or health workers should become spies or see themselves as an arm of the security services.

    The other issue discussed was the relationship between non-violent extremism and vulnerability to becoming drawn in to violent extremism.

    The purpose of the Prevent programme is to raise the awareness of professionals about these issues. They are not rare issues. They are issues which the authorities with which our students are placed are having to start to deal with. Social workers will come into contact with people who reject values of a liberal society and/or haver sympathy with extremist ideologies. The purpose of the Prevent agendas is to present these issues within the context of safeguarding both for vulnerable people who could be radicalised and protection of others.

    We have a situation in this country where young people have been enticed to travel to Syria where they will be in great personal danger and highly likely to suffer abuse.
    Prevent is not perfect but we have a duty as professionals to address these issues. If we think the Prevent agenda is flawed then we should contribute to improving it by engaging positively. However, this should be done from a position of knowledge and understanding of what it is about- not from a position of prejudice. We cannot, however, ignore these issues. There is too much as stake.

    • wendy mann August 26, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

      do you remember that blairite policy idea that the govt would label and define all children by the age of 7 (eg future rapists, crooks, etc). so enabling pre-emptive action.

      why not ?

      BTW how many far right , pro zionist (150 went to fight for israel in recent war crimes in gaza) etc have been identified ? do they exist or is it dependent upon the bias and politics of those doing the pre emptive identifying .

      “There was no stereotyping or profiling” & “There was no suggestion that social workers or health workers should become spies” < they dont have to make it explicit. it is implicit , you know who youre meant to look for / at.

    • Tony Stanley August 29, 2015 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks Jim – but i think you have missed the point.

      The work of prevent and policing is murky – why would they tell you about methods and intelligeence tools, it is black-boxed off from us – and they are getting on with their work.

      How does the July 1 duty to report affect you as a university lecturer?
      What is your university doing or saying aout this?
      I do not know of any local authority that has addressed the implications for social workers or teachers, or early years staff.

  4. Jazz August 25, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

    The social services acronym ‘SS’ (which I have never liked because of its fascist connotations) now seems all the more a term to always guard against using! Social workers are not social police and this government’s right wing paranoia needs to be firmly resisted.

  5. kenny burgoyne August 25, 2015 at 9:34 pm #

    Sounds like more Brighton and Hove “psycho-babble” social work.

  6. Paul Fredericks August 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

    I think you will find that other sectors of the public sector have been using predictive modelling for years – the health sector uses it to identify people at higher risk of A&E admissions and the police are increasingly using it to identify crime hotspots. Delivering better targeting of resources – which are increasingly short supply.

    So science fact and not fiction I am afraid…

    Not in any of the cases above has predictive modelling removed the need for high quality analysis and investigation by professionals – it simply helps them to look in the right place.

    • Tony Stanley August 29, 2015 at 10:16 am #

      Yes Paul, i agree, and think health modeling to offer the best and most effective treatmnet for treatment is sensible.
      But how much privacy are we willing to give up in order that certian families are pushed throught such modelling tools?
      It will be poor and struggling famililes becuase more state information is held on them.
      It is not an even playing field.
      Having a negative test result for breast cancer is very different to being labbeld a potenitl terroist aged 15. Life chances are not going to play out in th same way.

    • Tony stanley August 30, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

      Yes but health identity is very different to a biography that notes “possible terrorist” on file,
      Implications very different and life chances highly differentiated
      It’s not an even plying field – muslim youth will pay a higher price

  7. Rachel Turner August 28, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    How can you combine issues like terrorism and child protection in a single article in this way? In one case you are looking for a potential violent perpetrator and in the other a vulnerable child – how many more children need to die before we realise we need to share data and use it more intelligently? Surely it is the job of Principle Social Worker to look at this objectively and work out how to use predictive modeling in a way that is proportionate – balancing rights to privacy with the rights of the child?

    • Tony Stanley September 7, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      Hi Rachel,

      Did I miss the public conversation about how much liberty we are giving up to increase security?
      It’s curious just how much we are all prepared to give up in the name of security.
      Of course using data smartly is sensible, but data already held and used to help families is one thing – data being collected to be used at a later date is not ok and social workers need to be aware of the ethical issues this raises.
      This shift does affect the mandate/ and will shape practises of sw.

  8. Patch September 3, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Working as an advocate for parents trapped in the present benighted system, the number of times one comes across the theme that ‘ the parents are complaining as a way of deflecting from the real issues…. which extrapolates to … those who complain fit the profile of abusers, is very alarming.

    To quote the article: ‘there is the potential for risk to be over-exaggerated’… where it is useful to Social Care desire outcomes to do so. The desired outcome beig to remove the child on the basis of parental non-cooperation.

    In these economically tight times ‘effective supervision’ is too often ‘escalate to child protection and pre-proceedings. Social Workers are already ‘soft police’ – and not that soft either.

    ‘What is clear is that in this work frequent, high quality supervision will be essential for social workers to remain supported, challenged and confident in their decision-making. Social workers require practice tools that are grounded in and facilitate a relational approach to risk’ … this has always been true, and is rarely applied, (This is because, hcpc and lgo eat our heart out,. local authorities and individual social workers are barely accountable. Misrepresent under oath if you are a professional and you’ll get a reprimand, possibly even a short suspension, lie under oath as a parent and you’ll lose your children forever. Complain – and you ‘fit the profile’)

    Tony Stanley, how is deciding and defining ‘future risk of emotional harm’ any different from the predictive agenda you define in Prevent?

    As a footnote: one very effective way of breeding a radicalised, angry and disenfranchised young person is to take them from their families and put them in care.

  9. Tony stanley September 9, 2015 at 7:07 am #

    We can’t predict risk of future emotional harm – that’s my point,
    We are best to focus on the risk issues today and locate help for families so they offset risks of tomorrow’s emotional or other forms of abuse and neglect.
    the use of the world risk is the problem and it sets up a false idea that’s we can offset every risk to a child,
    Impossible