Though there had been hints for a while, I first found out for certain that my college was gathering information on me because one of my teachers told me so: he kept me after class to ask what he should write in my ‘Prevent’ file. That was around February this year.
After that I started trying to get a look at whatever information was being held. As it stands, FE colleges are legally required to do a risk assessment on “radicalisation” within the college, including students, societies and teachers who could contribute. I was fairly sure that I was in that risk assessment, so I made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, though I believe (having done some more research) that colleges and unis can just reject FOI requests on Prevent, since it’s a “security matter”. In fact, the Freedom of Information request was mostly useful for putting pressure on the college administration, especially the principal, to let them know I was serious. It helped that I have a lot of contact with the principal, who has in the past tried to stop me from organising certain things for the Marxist Society. So she knew I wasn’t likely to give up if I was certain there was information being held.
My Freedom of Information request was continually denied for “security reasons”, but I’m fairly certain that the principal actually just didn’t want me reading the file until I had finished lessons at the college. After all, some of my teachers got fairly carried away with what they wrote in it. But it’s not actually forbidden to allow students to view any information the college is holding on them. In fact, in allowing me to view the file (after having taken out anything that wasn’t directly related to me, including, I think, some content on the Marxist Society) nobody was breaking any rules. So I was allowed to view the file after my last day at college was over.
The file contained a lot of speculation, especially on what they thought might have “radicalised” me in the first place. They thought it was a result of ‘soft’ social justice movements (e.g. feminism) which could have eventually pushed me into more radical ideas. Not a bad guess, but in my case incorrect as I had been introduced to left-wing ideas by some lefty friends during my GCSE years and pushed to more radical conclusions by the savage cuts that went on at my sixth-form college during my time there. The file also described my character, including gems like “a challenging individual unwilling to accept rules or restrictions” from the principal, and “worryingly charismatic” from one teacher who I think just got carried away. It also outlined what was known of my political allegiances, although they hadn’t dared ask any of my friends so the information they had was sketchy at best, only that I was probably a communist. I did run the Marxist Society after all, which they mentioned, with the help of “a close group of sympathetic friends”.
However, if this information was passed to ‘Prevent’, it clearly wasn’t considered enough of a problem for them to actually do anything about. I believe the information was only passed on within the context of the whole college’s risk assessment – however that’s still pretty serious.
The information that was stored on me, though scandalous, is fairly unsurprising considering that the college is legally required to spy on students in this way. This is the reality of the government’s ‘Prevent’ legislation. At a certain point laws like ‘Prevent’, which have been sold to us via government scare-tactics as guarantees for our safety, will be turned against those of us on the Left who are genuinely interested in keeping students safe from education cuts and future unemployment. My example shows that this process has already begun.
Others who have been politically active (and who are still in the education system, since the scheme was only started in 2015) would almost certainly have equally or even more interesting files. The only thing special about mine was that I managed to get a look at it. However, I know that accessing the files could prove to be quite difficult. I was lucky enough to be a) absolutely certain that information was being gathered, and b) in FE, meaning the college was smaller than a university and I could directly pester the principal for information.
Insisting that colleges and universities open the files they keep on their students is just the first part of what needs to be done. We need to fight the government’s ‘Prevent’ agenda as a whole. Schools, colleges and universities need to refuse the government’s instruction to spy on their own students. Students and staff alike should instead be tackling the right-wing radicalism of this Tory government with the modest demand for a society based on cooperation, genuine democracy and equality – that is the struggle for socialism.
by an anonymous sixth-form college student