October 31, 2023 - 7:45am

As the war between Israel and Hamas sparks a rise in social tensions and antisemitism, in the UK, there have been calls on the police to do more. The latest idea is for the Met to be a more visible presence in schools where “community tensions” are felt to be running high, to gather information about potential trouble and, presumably, to deter it.

Jewish schools, particularly in London, have been targeted by threats and vandalism since the 7 October attacks. Some have responded by closing for specific days, while others advised students not to travel in recognisable uniforms. Already security-conscious, those schools are no doubt working even more closely with police to protect those in their care.

The proposal to increase police presence in other schools, however, is harder to justify. Certainly, there are communities and areas in which antisemitism has long been endemic. That this has not been adequately challenged before now is a stain on Britain’s claim to be a liberal, tolerant, pluralist society. But increased surveillance of children and young people, in schools where they should be learning to get along with their fellow citizens, is the wrong response.

What will children and teenagers learn from an increased police presence, observing their conversations and behaviour, and collecting information about them from their teachers? The obvious lesson is to confirm the narrative that they are the victims of a repressive state and a system biased against them. This is the very narrative that feeds the sense of grievance finding vocal, and occasionally violent, expression along lines that mirror the conflict in Israel and Gaza. It has been noted before that police officers tend to be posted in schools with more deprived students, and more students from minority-ethnic backgrounds. Those young people, who in many cases already feel unfairly targeted by law enforcement, are unlikely to be reassured by greater police presence.

Schools are already drawn into surveillance initiatives designed to alert police and security forces to potential radicalisation. The Prevent programme put a statutory duty on schools to report pupils to authorities if their words or behaviour suggest susceptibility to extreme or radical ideas or actions. Observation of students included their online activities, as well as their schoolwork and even class discussions. 

Prevent was criticised for stigmatising individuals who had not done anything criminal, all while failing to actually prevent some of them going on to commit murder. The killer of MP David Amess was referred to the programme, but was never considered a threat by security services. These services need to be aware of potential attacks on individuals or institutions, but uniformed police officers in school corridors seem unlikely to contribute to that intelligence gathering. 

Where tensions between pupils already run high, increased police presence may suppress public manifestation of those tensions within the institution, but do nothing to resolve them. Any students who are considering giving destructive or violent expression to their prejudices will find ways to conceal their views and plans from observation, which is surely not the lesson we want them to learn in school. 

Ultimately, we have failed to build a tolerant, pluralist culture. That is the root of the problem now finding expression in attacks on Jewish people and organisations. Putting more police officers in schools to stop teenagers and children giving voice to prejudices that we have allowed to fester is an abrogation of adult responsibilities, one which will do nothing to solve that problem.

Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.