Since the increase in cases of young people becoming radicalised by extremist ideologies in the UK and as a result of the 2015 PREVENT Update, social work is now being closely aligned with an array of new counter-terrorism initiatives put forward by the UK government.

PREVENT makes up one of four strands of the Government’s broader counter-terrorism initiatives, CONTEST, which was introduced to counteract the risk of terrorism in the UK and overseas by the Labour government in 2003. The agenda aims to provide practical help to anyone who may be at risk of becoming radicalised and drawn into terrorist activity. 

In practice, it means mobilising police and other organisations, including schools, and social care centres to build relations and communication channels to refer any suspicions to a local PREVENT body. 

The PREVENT strategy.

The current outlook.

After the update to the strategy in 2015, social workers now have a statutory duty to work within the agenda and report and manage concerns if someone is at risk of radicalisation. Support workers are therefore advised to adhere to conventional safeguarding principles when approaching cases of this nature.  

However, the duties outlined within the PREVENT agenda can create ethical dilemmas for the social workers who work within it, and many are concerned about best practice and how to approach such a sensitive and often challenging role. These concerns mainly centre around the risk of targeting Muslim communities which in turn can perpetuate alienation and harm community relations. There are also concerns about the issue of ‘pre-crime’ and whether social workers can run the risk of criminalising young people before they have even committed a crime.
So, if you’re confused or concerned about your responsibilities as a social worker working under the PREVENT agenda, we have outlined some tips to bear in mind below. 

Consider the signs of safety approach.

With obvious concerns surrounding the issues of “pre-crime” and the challenges which come with making confident and rational decisions about radicalisation risks, social workers may need to refer to existing models and frameworks when analysing danger.  
Principal social worker Dr Tony Stanley argues that one of the best ways to approach cases related to the PREVENT agenda is by consulting the ‘Signs of Safety Model’.

Stanley has worked with children within homes where extremist views had been normalised, and he believes that this particular model “offers a comprehensive approach to analysing danger, existing strengths and safety/protective factors and future safety and utilises a simple judgment scaling process that involves all of the people around the child.” 

The model can be used with individuals and family groups, to work towards safety and protection, and will likely offer social workers a respectful way to work with radicalisation risks.

The approach is grounded in partnership and collaboration and focuses on the question “How can the social worker build partnerships with parents and children in situations of suspected or substantiated child abuse and still deal rigorously with the maltreatment issues?” You can find out more about the Signs of Safety approach and its inception here.

Practitioners need to be critically aware.

If you’re working within the PREVENT agenda you will always need to be critically aware of your skills, your limitations and how your actions affect the family you’re working with. Being self-reflective is therefore essential, so when you’re approaching a case, you will need to be able to understand how your work is influenced and how you could be influencing others. Here are few things to consider:


This effectively links actions to suspicion without the need for a charge so be mindful that “pre-crime” is a limit on your ability to act because you can’t predict whether someone will go on to commit a terrorist crime. Remember, just because someone exhibits extremist views doesn’t mean they have.


Your role as a social worker is still to protect whether it is a child at risk of abuse, drugs or radicalisation. You need to rely on robust assessment and risk analysis to understand the family and whether compliance is genuine or fake, all the time linking it back to the available evidence.


To support a young person in a situation like this you need to understand their culture and religion and what it means to them, as well as the concerns of the parents, wider family and community. 


You need to understand what motivates a young person, mainly how they view themselves and how they perceive the world around them and their position in it. If they’re contemplating acts of terrorism think about why they feel marginalised and what influences their peer groups and the media is having on them.

Find out how social workers can get better at enhancing their public image in the Social Work Tutor’s latest Career Hub post. 

Stick to your skill set and avoid “soft policing”.

There is a danger with PREVENT that you may cross the line into actual police responsibilities, so it’s important to remember you are not “soft-police” when working in scenarios related to radicalisation. As a social worker you need to have a clear understanding of your responsibilities so try to take a “business as usual” approach. 

You have a distinct set of skills and remit which is primarily to help safeguard young people, note extremist behaviour and pass relevant information to the appropriate agencies. Whether a young person is arrested and charged is a decision for the police and CONTEST so any decision you make must be a proportionate response to the situation at hand. Remember that the young person’s welfare will always be your primary concern.