‘Following recent terror attacks, social work must re-evaluate its approach to radicalisation’

A social worker shares concerns about radicalisation, Prevent, and its focus on muslims rather than on far-right groups

Photo: Ilya Akinshin/Fotolia

by Jason Barnes

I am deeply concerned that Muslims in North London near Finsbury Park mosque were targeted last week during their holy month of Ramadan.

An act of terror has been inflicted directly on the Muslim community; the kind and peaceful British Muslim community who played an integral part in saving lives and arranging support during the Grenfell Tower fire.

There is often an expectation on Muslims generally following terrorist attacks (such as in Manchester, London Bridge and Borough Market, where dozens were killed and many more injured), to apologise and explain the rationale of these attackers.

Yet there does not appear to be any expectation on me as a white man to speak for or apologise for the attack on muslims at Finsbury Park mosque. This is white privilege, and as social workers we must be astute in recognising and challenging this discrimination and prejudice.


This leads directly to the government’s Prevent Strategy, which is in place to protect British citizens from being groomed and radicalised into any form of extremism.

As a social worker I received the Prevent training, however I am worried about it and feel uncomfortable with how it has been implemented and applied. I feel it has caused deep divisions in Britain, and sowed fear and suspicion. It is experienced as an oppressive surveillance which focuses overwhelmingly on the Muslim community.

Almost 4,000 people were referred to the UK de-radicalisation scheme last year (2015-2016) up from 1,681 in 2014, official figures show.

Significantly for social workers; children aged nine and under were reported among those 4,000. Many of these were unsubstantiated referrals. What impact does this have on a child’s sense of safety, belonging and identity within their school and local community? Are we equipped to deal with the confusion and potential trauma following this experience?

When I completed Prevent training as part of my professional development, the focus was almost exclusively on identifying suspicious behaviour among young men of colour and young people from Muslim backgrounds. We were being trained to notice what kind of things a Muslim person might say or do if they were being radicalised and how to report it.

Fascist groups

However, the information was not entirely clear and there were minimal discussions about the risks posed by fascist and far-right groups.

Not enough information was given about Muslims generally (for those who had minimal understanding of the religion) and there was no representation of Muslims at the training. Could a more active engagement with the religion of Islam by young people be misconstrued as ‘becoming radicalised’? If we are misinformed, yes.

Community Care poll in 2015 found that almost 70% of social workers had no or limited confidence and experience in dealing with issues of extremism. If professionals are not feeling confident, decisions will be made out of fear or anxiety and be perceived as oppressive, or potentially racist and islamophobic.

In this incredibly tumultuous time, social workers need to exercise professional judgement which is informed. Our role within communities and society generally is to strengthen, empower and provide protection and support. It is vital that we engage more fervently than ever before in non-discriminatory practice and, in particular, to challenge Islamophobia and other forms of hate.

Promoting justice

The HCPC Standards of Proficiency require us to be able to work with others to promote social justice, equality and inclusion and to address the impact of discrimination, disadvantage and oppression.

We must use reflection and supervision to think about what we’re doing and why and ensure that we do not become fearful or suspicious of minority groups and limit our effectiveness in practice.

If we are uncertain about the social work role in preventing radicalisation, of all kinds, then this must be raised with our employers and the British Association of Social Workers.

Critique of ‘Prevent’ is often viewed as controversial, however looking for ways to deliver best practice should be embraced and discourse encouraged. Social workers have a unique role and professional duty to speak out and promote acceptance, inclusivity and to challenge discrimination.


Given the recent terror attacks in England, we as a profession, along with other public agencies, need to look at our approach to radicalisation and ensure that our practice is not discriminatory and functions in a robust but genuinely inclusive way.

How do we do so? Given that Muslim children and families will be disproportionately affected by errors of judgement we must engage with our Muslim friends, neighbours, community leaders and charities. Being neither Muslim or a person of colour it is vital that I and others listen to and learn from those with know-how.

Organisations such as “Maslaha”, based in London exist to ‘change and challenge the conditions that create inequalities for Muslim communities, combining creativity with practical work and strategic thinking to tackle social issues in areas such as health, education and the criminal justice system’.

‘TELL MAMA’, a public service who support victims of anti-Muslim hate and also measure and monitor anti-Muslim incidents can support social workers to make informed assessments about risk and vulnerability. They noted a ‘five-fold increase’ in anti-Muslim incidents since the London Bridge attacks with a rise of 500%.


Social work practice which is not inter-sectional is ineffective and oppressive.

One in three terror suspects in UK is now white, following a significant rise in far-right extremism. It is therefore unacceptable for us to be blinkered about where potential risks are coming from.

If we work with families who make anti-immigrant or racists comments are these reported and addressed? If not, why not? Far-right extremism is insidious and very dangerous as it, in many ways, forms part of the mainstream narrative.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) took aim at some British media outlets, tabloid newspapers like The Sun and Daily Mail, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”, which has been interpreted as being racist or inciting hatred towards minority groups. Our ability to challenge this narrative is integral to effective practice.

As social workers, it is vitally important that we are responsive to the needs of our society, particularly in the wake of recent significant events. We must engage with victims of terror and prejudice, demonstrating leadership and a commitment to equality, respect and justice for all.

This week a social worker, writing for the Guardian newspaper, challenged us to leave our comfort zones and to reconnect with those in need. It’s an important challenge and one which we can and must face together.

Jason Barnes is a social worker and Professional Development Assessor. He tweets @jsnbarnes.

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19 Responses to ‘Following recent terror attacks, social work must re-evaluate its approach to radicalisation’

  1. Rukhsana Farooqi June 27, 2017 at 10:31 am #

    This is very interesting and I have undertaken assessments for public and private law proceedings. I call for more culturally appropriate judiciary that understand the issues for Muslim parents and children.

  2. Tom J June 27, 2017 at 11:11 am #

    The whole area is a minefield in terms of what is freedom of expression and when is it that a line the crossed.

    It would be assumed that a child/family who read The Sun and repeat verbatim its daily key messages have not crossed the line?

    Likewise the recent court judgement shows the can of worms in terms of ‘was the father fighting in Syria for one of the ‘moderate’ groups or one of the terrorist groups? and which one was the mother supportive of? http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed178334

    The reality is that it is very unlikely that a child or family will advertise what they are planning to do. Instead there may be hints- However in the family law week judgement above- we see that the social worker and the Counter-Terrorism Command Safeguarding Team got it completely wrong as the mother did not sympathise with extremist views and the so called Islamic State.

  3. Jim Greer June 27, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    Its worth mentioning that one of the factors which has promoted the rise of the far right has been the Brexit referendum and associated rhetoric about immigration by both the right wing news media and the UK Government. There is apparently a view that appeasing people’s ‘anxieties’ about immigration through anti- immigration policies and leaving the EU will calm racist sentiments. In fact Brexit has legitimised xenophobia. Racist attacks have significantly risen since the EU referendum result. Whatever people’s individual views about leaving the EU, it has brought with it a revival of neo-colonialist and white supremacist sentiments.
    A role for social work can be in keeping faith with multi-culturalism and talking positively about the contribution of immigrants to our culture and economy.
    If we want to find and root out sources of radicalisation then there is no need to search out the dark places of the internet. Its on any newsstand on the covers of our popular tabloids every day with their appalling anti-immigrant headlines. That’s where some of the worst hate preaching takes place.

    • Roger Wild June 27, 2017 at 6:36 pm #

      Well well here we go again. Don`t mention immigration because that’s racist. Its about time people take this subject seriously. No right minded person agrees racism is OK. Now lets talk about immigration with a mature head instead of the usual waffle from the left. The contribution of most immigrants is valuable but our culture is our culture. When I go abroad I want to experience the culture of that country, its what makes that country unique. Its nothing to be ashamed of. We have a multi culture but we should identify with British ethics and values like accepting homosexuality (it happens), we don`t celebrate having four wives (its just wrong), we don`t mutilate the genitals of boys and girls (its just not British), and we don`t think a man who marrys a 6 year old girl is the perfect man (prophet mohammed). Or do you disagree Jim Greer….

      • Virginia June 28, 2017 at 10:55 pm #

        Roger. I join Joe in questionkng what is the ” British culture and values”. Even the “English” ones. Travel from one side to the other of England or even move from one neighborhood to another or from one household to the other and you can judge for yourself. Culture and values are formed within by what surround us and change with generations. ” English values” weren’t the same 200 years ago or even 50, thankfully. It has happened and continues to happen in each country across the globe. Blaming social and cultural change on immigration is just too plain and ignores what anthropology and sociology teach us.

        And just in case Mona and Joe have not been clear enough, the great mayority of muslims DO NOT mutilate their kids or marry 6 years olds or have 6 wifes, just like the great mayority of English men DO NOT beat their wifes, are pedophiles or are hooligans as it appears on certain tabloids.

        Talking about immigration is not racist, but as it turns out most information we hear about immigration is manipulated for political reasons. So we ought to be a bit more rigorous when making judgements.

        I totally agree with comments in regards to our role as social workers in the ” capturing ” of possible radicalisation cases and how oppressive it is. Unfortunately when working for a LA who pays our wages and has a political agenda you are either in or out of it.

        If only we could be independent and impartial how many things we would do so differently!!!

  4. sabine June 27, 2017 at 6:43 pm #

    Hat off to you, Jason! It is reassuring to see that others do have the same concerns as I do. Sadly, and we have historical evvidence from the not so long ago history, that establishment is very much ‘blind on the right(wing) eye’.

    I have sat in a info presentation on Prevent, and I was really horrified that it appears to be solely directed at the muslim community. It is biased and diverts from the fact that hate crimes, xenophobia are usually perpetrated by members of white- british population. It does have a purpose, however scapegoating ethnic minorities is a ‘nice and convenient diversion’.

    Hailing from a country that caused two World Wars, I always thought that people had learned from our history, but I guess they have not.

    Furthermore they conveniently overlook to explore the causes for radicalisation itself: oppression, inequality, poverty to name but a few.

    I also think that the media, and I mean all of them, are contributing to radicalisation as well. Having also trained in media studies, I cannot understand how people can ignore and forget about ethical reporting. Report the news, but do not make it up……

    I think as social workers we have to speak up, challenge and reflect.

  5. Dave June 27, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

    Thoughtful article. On a positive note: I went to a prevent training recently and was aporehensive (for the reasons in the article and comments above). However it was very balanced, with the dominant topic right wing extremism. There was discussion of all forms of extremism, along with possible causes, including poverty and alienation. Perhaps my trainer was unusual but there does appear to be some good practice going on. At least in my area (NE England).

  6. Joe Z Mairura June 28, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    I just have one simple question:

    ” Why is it that the radicalisation is being “insidiously” suggest to be the remit of social work??
    can someone give me an evidence based explanation?

    And Roger, there is no such a thing as “British Ethics” or “British values” . These are universal principles that transcend individual societies.

    Please do not confuse societal indoctrination and programming with what’s “Right and what’s wrong”..British or otherwise.

    Would I be far for the mark if I hazarded a guess that by “British” you actually mean “English”?
    If I’m wrong I raise my hand in apology If however I’m right- it just goes to show the effect of societal programming on your declarations in response to Jim Greer ‘s comments.

    Always happy to be corrected


    • Roger Wild June 28, 2017 at 4:59 pm #

      Call it what you like Joe but lets be honest about culture, its diverse and that’s what makes us interesting. As for the article I think it is bias and nauseating. Just hope I never have to work with Jason Barnes.

      • Jason Barnes July 25, 2017 at 8:24 pm #

        But I make such a good cup of tea, Roger.

  7. Martin Porter June 28, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    ACPO unfortunately got their hands on the Prevent agenda, and added in whatever they wanted.

    Hence the Merseyside Prevent Powerpoint (which is available on the web), included amongst types of ‘domestic extremism’ such dangerous customers as ‘anti-fracking activists’.

  8. Ellie June 28, 2017 at 3:16 pm #


    What you have written strikes a chord with me. There are massive problems in respect of how “radicalization” has come to be viewed in the U.K., and some of these must clearly be attributed to the way in which societal views are influenced by social policy. I cannot help but think, personally, that this has come about because nobody really gave any thought to what “radicalization” actually meant – both in a dictionary (i.e. linguistic) sense, and in practice. Instead, the U.K. fascination with America, and American culture – a fascination which means that our country often takes the lead from America in terms of its social policy making and ideologies – meant that we followed a growing American trend in which practitioners of Islam (i.e. Moslems) became seen as the sole focus of “radicalization”. This excessively narrow remit is seriously problematic – as you, and several people in this comments section correctly identify. Allow me to expound…

    If we consider the current “Trump Regime” in America, we can see that the country and its internal politics are becoming increasingly divided by a leadership which expresses what might only be politely described as pretty “far right” views. A culture is being encouraged in America where “foreigners” – immigrants, and particularly Moslems – are labelled as a “potential terrorist threat” plus a “threat to the economy by taking American jobs and homes”. Consider the fact that this view is predominantly Xenophobic in nature. Consider also the possibility that such a view is founded merely upon assumption. Has any research and investigation been undertaken in America that categorically PROVES that immigrants and foreigners are predominantly involved in terrorist activities or otherwise threaten the economy? If this is not the case (and I would suspect it is NOT), then one can only surmise that such a view, in America, is based upon prejudice, ignorance, fear of difference, and Xenophobia. Yet it is a view sanctioned by the President!

    Here in the U.K. we appear, sadly, to have followed suit. Whilst it is true that some terrorist threats may come from ISSIS and other Moslem extremists, it is far from correct to say that these are the ONLY threats in respect of “radicalization”. Personally, I would suspect that it is the very fact that the U.K. is currently involved in “BREXIT” that is increasing hostility towards immigrants and foreign people (I hate that word “foreign”, but please accept that I use it here to describe people not born in the U.K., or born to parents who were not from the U.K.). Indeed, the “BREXIT” vote seemed fraught with tension over the issues of foreigners and immigrants, and the result showed that our U.K. is very much a divided U.K. when it comes to how people feel about multiculturalism. Ardent “leave” campaigners used reasons such as wanting to clamp down on immigration, and wanting to rid the country of foreigners, as reasons to leave the E.U. – many of these people were heavily influenced by Political party campaigns, including those of the U.K. “far right”. Here, I agree with Jim Greer (above).

    Sabine (above) makes some good points. Perhaps it is time we looked to identify background causes of “radicalization”. There will presumably be reasons why some people wish to target, blame and ostracize others in society. The worrying thing is that nobody appears to support inquiry in this area. I recently made a proposal at University to undertake research that looked at radicalization and people living in ghettos – the University in question turned my research proposal down by stating that my research idea “was not relevant”. Really? How can any form of research that looks at “radicalization” not be current, and very relevant? I find this attitude particularly concerning, in light of the fact that since I made the proposal, websites such as this one are debating the very topic of “radicalization”. I struggle to see how my idea and proposal was “not relevant”.

    Anyhoo! Matters of plagiarism aside… I would have thought that common sense alone could point most individuals towards the understanding that “radicalization” is not simply restricted to the Moslem community. It could be argued that any person who supports and expounds extreme and inflexible views regarding a specific topic or topics may be “radicalized”. It is correct to argue that U.K. “far right” groups may be seen as such. Perhaps we need to consider “radicalization” in the light of INTOLERANCE, for the two are intrinsically linked – where one exists, you will doubtless find the other. Significant intolerance and extremism go hand-in-hand, and it is for this reason that we should consider ANYONE as potentially at risk of “radicalization”, be they Moslem, or otherwise. We could, perhaps, argue that there is “radicalization” within some areas of the CHRISTIAN church – especially where we see extreme hatred and intolerance of gays/lesbians, female priests, working career women, single unmarried mothers, and abortion. Organizations such as the B.N.P. are clearly “radicalized”, with their open hostility towards immigrants and foreign nationals; worse still, they seek as organizations to recruit and radicalize others (i.e. to promote their hate campaign). Ironically, the U.K. tolerates both the extreme views of the Christian church, and the activity of the B.N.P., and does not seem to class either as examples of “radicalization”.

    Which leads me to addressing another point… Yes, many in the U.K. may rightly and justifiably be disgusted by such things as FGM, arranged marriages, honour killings, child brides and suchlike… BUT (and this is a VERY important but) they are NOT exclusive to “foreigners and immigrants”. Sadly, I feel that many people in the U.K. are terribly mistaken as to what they think U.K. nationals do, and do not do. For example, men in the U.K. are known to import brides from overseas. I am sure we all know of, or have heard stories of, men who have bought brides from places like Thailand or eastern Europe. Often, these U.K. males choose to wed such women for particular reasons. The bride is frequently much younger than her husband, and is usually expected to take a very subservient role. Should this be acceptable? Another example of shocking U.K. behaviour is this… Whilst we may not submit girls to things like FGM, it seems perfectly acceptable for parents in the U.K. to do all manner of questionable things to little girls (and sometimes little boys). I have seen toddlers and babies with pierced ears. Should this be acceptable? I have seen pre-pubescent girls taken to hairdressers to sit for hours having their hair permed. Surely this is cruel and unnecessary? Parents over-sexualize their children in inappropriate clothing – I have seen little girls with their feet crammed into high heels. Surely this is just as damaging to their feet as the now-outlawed Chinese practice of foot binding? Yet we in the U.K. do not stop to consider whether such behaviours are acceptable, or, worse, harmful. Parents in the U.K. permit their children to play with toy guns; to play with toy tanks; to play with toy soldiers; to play on computer games that involve terror-related activities such as bombings, car thefts, car crashes… Surely this is an activity that both desensitizes children to the horrors of war by turning it into a game, and also risks exposing kids to “radicalization”? Plus, it usually involves gender stereotyping, too! But we U.K. “white westerners” (hate writing this, but it is a way of describing people who are not immigrants or of overseas extraction) do not seem to consider that OUR activities could in any way be problematic.

    The problems we are seeing with the issue of “radicalization” are symptomatic of an entrenched societal hypocrisy in which anything “westernized” is deemed “automatically acceptable”, and anything “foreign” is deemed “suspect”. It represents an excessive tolerance of elements of white U.K. culture that go unquestioned because they are not subjected to the same scrutiny as elements of “foreign” culture.

    I could write books and papers on this subject, believe me! Sadly, I wonder if a) many will listen, and b) my words will not end up plagiarized!

  9. Mona June 28, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

    Jason- thank you for your thoughtful and straight talking article. Misinformation such as Muslims marry 6 year olds, violent etc. etc.. is exactly that – misinformation. As a Muslim and a social worker, I have certainly endured many forms of unwelcome behaviours from within and outside the work place. What strikes me about the LA in which I work is the complete lack of leadership from our managers to acknowledge, recognise, talk about or even discuss issues of discrimination. I was made difficult for me to take annual leave to celebrate Eid. I get asked questions about what I think about extremist groups to test me out!! I know this because of the targeted manner in which those questions are asked. No one else is asked these questions because they are not Muslim!!. However negative conversations about Muslims go on behind closed doors. for those of us who know a thing or two about discrimination inside an organisation, know that that behaviour and attitude is almost certainly mirrored onto service users from those vulnerable communities.

    Whenever there is a terrorist attack, I dread going into the office, because of the looks I get especially from managers and some colleagues. I endured systematic group bullying by managers, malicious gossip, exclusion and isolation and blatant blocking from promotion.

    I went from a very confident highly competent practitioner for many years, to experiencing an awful crisis of confidence, doubting myself about almost every thing I do.

    I then go home after a long hard day to counsel my daughter upset about yet another totally unprovoked hate crime.

    My resilience stems from a faith that teaches daily acts and practices of peace, tolerance and the highest level of kindness and compassion.

  10. Sue Novak June 29, 2017 at 11:42 am #

    This article has not too much to do with children or adult social work; it is a propaganda that does not leave a lot of space for a reasonable discussion. Following the recent tragedies, I found it irrational.

    • Roger Wild June 29, 2017 at 6:26 pm #

      Totally agree.

  11. Liz June 29, 2017 at 12:46 pm #

    I am now an accredited Prevent (WRAP)Trainer – a role I signed up for in part because of curiosity about the government agenda and the critiques/concerns about the Prevent programme. I remain concerned about the training but not for the reasons I expected.

    Firstly the current training has 4 case study video clips and it is mandatory for trainers to chose 2 detailing Far Right and 2 detailing Islamic extremism. The clips make similar points using each example. This ensures some level of balance.

    The issue for me was the messages given in respect of referral. Referral is triggered by 2 areas, concerns about vulnerability and then behaviour. The training we will deliver is aimed not at the public, but at professionals ( council workers) and the groups we work with will often fall into the remit of vulnerable as the vulnerabilities covered are all very generic. In terms of behaviour this included extreme beliefs, some of which are not illegal but might be seen as precursor to illegal behaviour ( they use an iceberg analogy). The difficulty is the monitoring of the thoughts and ideas of individuals of all kinds and where this line gets drawn.

    I was also told the Prevent programme is a pre criminal safeguarding programme, to protect those referred from being radicalised, not part of the counter terrorism strategy. For children and vulnerable adults this may fit well with safeguarding duties but not so much for non-vulnerable adults who may hold unpalatable beliefs but are not crossing the line to being a risk to the public.

    Other staff on the training were sure they had cases of genuine concern for example vulnerable young woman at risk of CSE reporting intentions to join jihadi groups abroad. For these cases a clear pathway to rapid skilled and appropriate help and intervention is essential. And in my authority the process apparently works well and I am told there are few if any inappropriate referrals. A number of young people locally are successfully involved in Channel for example and making good progress.

    The issue of consent however was unclear. In the child protection arena you need clear grounds to refer someone and share their info without their permission. The issue of consent is not part of the Prevent training programme but when I clarified with the train the trainer leader he indicated consent is not really an issue- if you are worried you just don’t need it. In addition if the referral is screened out the subject of referral will never know it has been made or that their details are held by the Prevent Co-ordinator. This didn’t seem satisfactory to me.

    So both the consent issue and the issue of judgement about whether someone’s vulnerability and behaviour puts them at risk, and by extension creates risk to the public are complex, and I am not sure Prevent training adequately addresses these. This is a problem at its conceptual foundation, before you even consider the issues of application and the errors that can occur where peoples biases or simple misunderstandings draw families into a process that harms them.

  12. Ray Jones June 29, 2017 at 12:49 pm #

    Thank you to those who are initiating and promoting this debate. Here is a link to a contribution in a Community Care piece from me in 2015 expressing concerns that the role of social work and child protection was being extended to control dissent and ‘radical thoughts’ (which already in 2015 was being argued would include, for example, those concerned about animal welfare and about the environment).


    And here are two links to two other Community Care articles which considered similar concerns:



    Ray Jones

    • Tom J June 29, 2017 at 4:48 pm #


  13. Ann Bradbury July 4, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

    So social workers are to be made a scapegoat yet again, I can just envisage the headlines: “Social work failed [whoever plants a bomb somewhere after having been the subject of some social work intervention in relation to radicalisation following a referral at some point]!”
    I can easily understand why no-one else wants to take the lead on this subject (I would have thought that psychologists would be most appropriate) and that the government is determined to divert attention away from the role it has played and continues to play in radicalisation. I can’t, however, understand why Local Authorities have offered to take the lead and feel that they can just land any of their social workers with the actual practical responsibility of that. All my social work experience and expertise relates to the area of the care/accommodation needs of older people and those under 65 with complex physical disabilities. I should imagine that I know no more about the area of radicalisation than the check -out operators in ASDA (quite possibly some of them know a lot more than I do).

    I have absolutely NO desire to get involved, in any way, in this area and do not feel that any amount of training would ensure that I am competent to reduce the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.