Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A real terror?

Hooded man

Unlikely though it may sound, anti-terrorism laws can encroach on schools and colleges, says Richard Bird.

Schools and colleges, like other public authorities in a democracy, have a moral duty to work against terrorism. Schools also have a statutory duty to promote community cohesion. This is described as "encouraging cohesion in the school, in the community, in the country and in the world".

The school's primary role in the fight against terrorism, of course, is an educational one. But there are clear anti-terrorist statutory duties which apply in schools and colleges as everywhere else.

It is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years' imprisonment, not to disclose information which might prevent a person from carrying out a terrorist act; or which might bring a terrorist to justice; or to disclose information that aids a terrorist to escape.

Unlikely to be of concern? Perhaps, but what if young people are gossiping about a new student living next door who never seems to study but spends a lot of time carrying large boxes into the house? It is possible and staff need to know what the consequences will be if they have information but do nothing.

These provisions from the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 are certainly less concerning, though, than the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2006.

Instigating terrorism

The Terrorism Act 2006 creates offences "relating to" the encouragement of acts of terrorism, and to the dissemination of terrorist publications, amplifying the provision of having articles in one's possession "for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism". It is the instigation aspect that potentially causes trouble.

At the height of the IRA campaign of terrorism, The Guardian published a short story by Gerry Adams, then the public voice of militant Republicanism, which explored the mind of an IRA sniper just before shooting a British soldier. The exploration was, broadly speaking, sympathetic to the sniper.

What would have been the legal position of an unsuspecting Guardian reader who found him/herself in possession of the article while reading the paper over breakfast? The decisive question would not have been whether it was a work of fiction but whether it might "instigate terrorism".

Unlikely? Maybe, but a schoolboy in Bradford was brought to trial and found guilty of "possessing articles useful for terrorism" because he had "a profusion of Islamic propaganda" on his computer. He had been in communication with university students over the internet.

The Appeal Court "not without hesitation" decided that "possessing a document for the purpose of inciting a person to commit an act of terrorism falls within the ambit of section 57." A similar consideration convicted Samina Malik, the 'lyrical terrorist' who put on the internet her poems exploring the pleasures of cutting the heads off the enemies of Islam.

So far the judiciary has bent over backwards not to criminalise misguided young people and they found ways of getting both these young people off. But the law is clear and in other cases the legal loopholes will not be found. Even if no action is taken, the young person may find a future blocked by a CRB record.

Create cohesion

If young people bring extremist material which encourages terrorism into schools or colleges, create it in English lessons, present extremist arguments in religious education or use the computer to explore extremist sites, how far should the school or college go in responding?

And how do they ensure that, in doing so, they do not alienate the diverse communities that they serve but rather create cohesion in these communities?

There will not be a uniform answer, though the principles will be the same as for meeting any other legal obligation. Staff need to be aware of the law and should be briefed. It may only take one rash member of staff to create a major issue.

There should be an attempt to establish sensible principles and to explain what is being done to all concerned. Students and children need to know that what they are playing with can land them in jail for years, which will be why the school or college may be making what may seem to be restrictive rules.

There should be clear reporting channels so that management can exercise some control, while recognising that their employees are citizens with an individual duty and individual liability.

The local authority may assist in bringing together right-thinking people to work out guidance. But in the last analysis, heads and principals need to remember that whatever answer is reached must respect the provisions of anti-terrorism law.

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