A Level results and leaping Home Counties teenagers

It's a comforting newspaper staple, but surely all a bit old hat now?

Across the country, photogenic blonde teenagers have been jumping into the air to celebrate their exam results, in a tale as old as time.

The less photogenic, less blonde teenagers have probably been getting results too (and possibly jumping) but who cares about them? They're grubby, and probably smoke and smell of colleges and readymeals, and some of them don't look like English Roses, so who gives a shit about them?

This year, the Sexy A-Levels tumblr has decided to call it a day. Its work is done, and the tropes are so well known now we can all recite them without a second thought. The mid-air suspension photo. The leaping girls. The "excitedly opening an evelope" photograph. The token boffin kid to try and convince you this isn't all about 18-year-old cheesecake.

We know it off by heart. It's one of those stories that is the same every time, dreaded by a swathe of journalists up and down the land. The same words, just in a slightly different order, but you could pretty much do it to a template: "students celebrated... blah de blah... results went up/down... blah de blah... someone from the government said... someone from somewhere else said... prodigy kid... someone who got a lot of A-levels..." and so on and so on.

It's comfortable, familiar, a nice old pair of slippers. It's like that day when temperatures are slightly warm and newspapers break out the graphics of a cartoon sun, wearing sunglasses, next to a thermometer showing the temperature in Fahrenheit and a picture of some random "beauties" on a beach somewhere.

One of the stories (if there is a story) to this year's results is that boys have caught up with girls, so naturally we're going to get loads of pictures of boys, right? Er, well, no. "Teenagers celebrate as they get A-level results" whooped the Mail Online, and it was a parody of what you'd imagine the Daily Mail to do.

There they were, the leaping Home Counties teenage girls, forever suspended in mid-air with a piece of paper and an envelope. No boys in sight, of course, ugh, who wants to see them? Or maybe it just so happened that every time a male walked into range of a camera lens, the shutter accidentally didn't go off. We can't say for certain.

It has just become a strange ritual, this yearly parade of young female flesh, a May Queen for the newspaper age. It doesn't tell us anything about exams, or education, or anything like that. Of course, those debates are being covered, and covered very well - see the Telegraph or Guardian's liveblogs. But elsewhere, the same tired old images dominate. It's a bit old hat.
 

Lovely A Level students jumping for joy. Yawn. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.