No one knows how many unregulated schools like madrassas and Haredi Jewish schools exist in London, Assembly Members investigating counter-extremism strategies have heard.
Ghaffar Hussain, who previously worked for anti-extremist think-tank Quilliam and is now employed to bolster “community resilience” in Newham, described such schools as part of an “unmapped sector” that could potentially put children at risk.
He told members of the Police and Crime Committee: “I don’t think anyone knows the exact number of what’s called supplementary schools that exist.
He added: “Ofsted isn’t necessarily aware of them and doesn’t necessarily have the power to regulate all of them either. Elective home education legislation is so weak that we have very few powers for people that not only choose to take their kids out of school but don’t even register their kids at all so that we’re not even aware those kids are being schooled anywhere.”
Newham is working on establishing an independent schools board which intends to “incentivise” schools that are outside of the mainstream system to join so the council could work with them on safeguarding issues, Hussain revealed.
But Hussain said: “The other challenge is that some of them deliberately want to stay below the radar.
“This applies to Jewish schools and Islamic schools in East London as well, because they do want to preach their particular conservative brand of religion, and they don’t necessarily want Ofsted marching in and objecting to certain elements of that.
“That, I think, is the real change – people who don’t want to be on the radar at all.”
Robin Merrett, head of operational oversight at the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, said measures were being drawn up to “focus on unregulated education” as part of a Counter-extremism and Safeguarding Bill being drawn up in Whitehall.
Prevent, the government’s counter-extremism strategy, divides the country up into “priority” and “non-priority” areas, meaning government cash is unequally distributed.
Non-priority London boroughs include Barnet, Bexley, Harrow and Croydon, while Tower Hamlets, Newham and Westminster are among those considered priority local authority areas.
However, Labour London Assembly member Andrew Dismore questioned whether such divisions were wise given that people could move between boroughs.
Martin Esom, who chairs the London Prevent Board, told the meeting: “This distinction between priority and non-priority boroughs is a nonsense.”
And Clair McGarry, a community safety officer in Bexley, said the non-priority label was “quite unhelpful”.
Around half of the areas across England and Wales identified as a priority under the Prevent Strategy are in London.
The committee also discussed counter-narratives to challenge propaganda produced by Islamic State, or Isis.
Hussain told members: “They [Islamic State] have a binary narrative, which most extremist groups do, in which the world is divided into two warring factions – Muslims and non-Muslims.
“They are encouraging British Muslims and European Muslims to sort of join them and not be loyal to the states they are living in and to treat the states they are living in as the enemy.”
It was important to understand how young people consume content online, he said, adding: “Young people don’t read books, for example, anymore. People look at short videos, 30 second videos, memes are shared online, short animes. Flashy, sharp, short content is how most people learn and share content online.
“That’s what Isis is doing. They’re creating short sharp content online. That’s why it’s so compelling.
“We need to step into that space and do a very similar thing, but use content that is as attractive to theirs in terms of the way it is presented, but have a very positive message around Britishness, for example, around being British, being an inclusive society that embraces people of all backgrounds – specifically to make Muslims feel included and part and parcel of British society.
“Sadiq Khan being Mayor, that’s a strong message in itself. I think what we need to know is what our message is and to communicate that.”