Government-backed guidance telling teachers to watch out for signs of Covid-19 radicalisation among pupils is "disturbing" - Anonymous teacher quotes in Herald article, June 5.


Education Scotland has a statutory duty to advise on how to prevent children from being fed fake news and conspiracy theories, especially regarding Covid-19. But ministers need to reassure the public they are not using this to duck legitimate public debate about how the crisis is being handled.


 Education Scotland, the public agency tasked with ensuring the quality of education in Scotland, has become embroiled in a row over advice it has issued to schools on how to combat children being confused by fake news stories and conspiracy theories relating to Covid-19. Has Education Scotland (ES) overstepped the mark and entered into an area of legitimate political debate? And is there a threat to parents who disagree with the Scottish Government over the lockdown or test and trace procedures?


Education Scotland is an independent executive agency created in 2010 and charged by the Scottish Government with “supporting quality and improvement in Scottish education” and “securing the delivery of better learning experiences and outcomes for Scottish learners”. It is run by a board which includes non-executive members approved by the Scottish Government. These come largely from an education and local government background.

It is arguable, given Education Scotland’s existing formal remit or professional staffing, that it may lack the resources or managerial skills to supervise a programme aimed at preventing the “radicalisation” of Scottish school pupils over Covid-19. However, the involvement of ES in anti-radicalisation strategy is not down to Scottish ministers but stems from UK Government legislation.

The National:

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In 2015, the UK Government passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. This placed a duty on all educational authorities, schools, colleges and universities to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. As counter-terrorism is a reserved matter, the UK national anti-radicalisation programme called PREVENT, which followed this legislation, is an all-UK affair. ES takes part in PREVENT by UK statute and Scottish ministers are mandated to oversee the local institutions involved.

The efficacy and success of PREVENT has been repeatedly questioned but it is wrong to blame either Scottish ministers or Education Scotland for doing their statutory duty under the anti-terror legislation.

That said, there is certainly a problem with the original 2015 Westminster legislation. This is at pains to say it “does not confer new functions on any specified authority”. Instead, it required institutions to give “due regard” to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism when they carry out their usual functions. At best this “due regard” proviso is terribly ambiguous and hardly helpful to hard-pressed educational professionals doing their day job.

The National: S5 and S6 students during an English Literature class at St Andrew's RC Secondary School in Glasgow as more pupils are returning to school in Scotland in the latest phase of lockdown easing. Picture date: Monday March 15, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story

The new ES briefing comes as it emerged there has been a 21% annual drop in referrals of vulnerable young people in Scotland under the PREVENT programme, in the year to March 31, 2020. This is where competent institutions or professionals (such as teachers) refer young people who they believe may be in a situation where they are open to dangerous radicalisation.

Some have read into this that Education Scotland might feel it is under criticism for not “ferreting out” radicalisation. However, it is just as possible to read the decline in referrals as proof of a decline in the threat of such radicalisation.


The latest Education Scotland advice to schools advocates that new “reporting procedures” should be implemented to curb children’s access to fake news and combat “extremists’ disinformation” over Covid-19. It provides a list of “prominent extremist narratives” over Covid including “wider conspiracy theories” relating to 5G phone networks causing Covid and anti-vaccination tropes. Also mentioned are conspiracy theories blaming China (and by extension those of Chinese origin) for causing the pandemic or accusing British Muslims of spreading the virus by flouting lockdown rules. All of these examples seem pertinent and unexceptional.

However, the main bone of contention is that the new ES briefing may stray into more contentious areas such as legitimate criticism of lockdown rules, track and trace procedures and vaccination priorities.

One teacher is quoted in The Herald as saying: “I understand the need for children to understand what fake news is and it is important they get the key messages around Covid, but I cannot believe that I have to keep an eye on criticism of the government’s test and protect, for example, which is what this implies.”

The new ES briefing has also been criticised by Jo Bisset, official organiser of Us For Them (UFT), which styles itself as a “grass-roots” parental lobby group. UFT has campaigned for an early end to the lockdown and for pupils to return to school normally. UFT has found itself in opposition to traditional parent-teacher groups such as like the National Parent Forum of Scotland. Some teachers have accused UFT of having a political agenda and being anti-SNP.

According to Ms Bisset, the new ES advice on children being influenced by Covid conspiracy theories “is an incredible order for the Scottish Government to impose on teachers”. She goes on: “If children need protected from anything, it’s the shambolic handling of the Covid crisis by the Scottish Government and the opposition parties who refused to hold them to account”.

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However, a close inspection of the ES document shows that its main intention is to ask teachers to review and update their schools existing safeguarding/risk assessment processes to include “the impact of Covid-19”. In itself, this seems unobjectionable. It advocates dedicating school time to “rebuilding relationships between children and young people and trusted adults and positive role models, which may have been absent during the pandemic”. Again, given the uniqueness of the pandemic and lockdown, that could be judged common sense.


The latest ES guidance is more common sense about combatting fake news than a sneaky way of protecting the Scottish Government from legitimate criticism. However, giving Education Scotland responsibility for issuing advice on preventing radicalisation is debatable when its main role is advancing the quality of teaching. Ministers may need to reassure us that they are up for criticism of their handling of the pandemic.

The National: National Fact Check Mixed