Understanding extremism in Scotland: public sector practitioner perceptions and views

Findings from research exploring public sector practitioner understandings and experiences of extremism in Scotland.

Executive summary


Prevent is the first of the 4 ‘P’s of the UK Government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, known as CONTEST (Home Office, 2018). The purpose of Prevent is to ‘stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’. While counter-terrorism (and therefore Prevent) is a reserved matter and the responsibility of the UK Government, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) places a duty on sectors that are devolved from Westminster to the Scottish Government (including health and social care, prisons, the police, education and local authorities) to pay ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. This is known as the Prevent duty. The Prevent duty guidance for Scotland (Home Office, 2021a) outlines how the specified sectors are expected to comply with this duty.

The Scottish Government supports the specified sectors to fulfil their obligations under the Prevent duty, and ensures that mechanisms are in place for safeguarding and supporting individuals who may be susceptible to being drawn into terrorism as outlined in the Prevent Multi-Agency Panel (PMAP) Duty Guidance (Home Office, 2021d).

The Scottish Government commissioned Thinks Insight & Strategy to conduct research to explore public sector practitioner understandings and experiences of extremism in Scotland. For the purposes of this research, public sector practitioners include professionals working in the sectors which have a statutory obligation to fulfil the Prevent duty (health and social care, prisons, the police, education and local authorities)[1].

While the focus of the research is on extremism, the Prevent duty is the link between the practitioners who participated in this research and extremism, and therefore is another key focus of the research.

This research is part of a wider programme of work to improve understanding of extremism in Scotland. Complementary research has been commissioned and conducted by the Scottish Government to explore the understandings and experiences of the Scottish public and stakeholders:


A mixed-methods approach was adopted for this research, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative elements. The qualitative research was undertaken first to give depth of insight into how public sector practitioners understood this topic. In-depth interviews and mini focus groups were carried out with practitioners with a designated Prevent aspect to their role (n=12) and practitioners without a designated Prevent aspect to their role (n=22). This was followed by the quantitative research, which involved an online survey distributed through an open link to public sector practitioners involved in delivering Prevent in Scotland. A total of 492 responses were received to the survey.

The research aimed to recruit public sector practitioners working across a range of professions and areas of Scotland. It also sought to ensure there was diversity of coverage across variables such as gender, rural or urban area and job role.

However there were several limitations to this research, including that it was relatively small scale, in terms of the overall number of participants, when compared to the size and breadth of the police, local authority, health and social care, prison and education sectors in Scotland. It is important to note that while a diverse range of opinions were included, this sample cannot be considered representative of the population of interest (i.e., all employees in each of these sectors who have an obligation to carry out the Prevent duty).

Further methodological detail can be found in section 2 of the report.

Key findings

The Prevent duty places an obligation on those in the local authority, health and social care, education, prisons and police sectors to pay due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. The report found that those working in different sectors, and those in different job roles within these sectors, had different levels of awareness, understanding, and views on extremism and Prevent in Scotland.

Understanding of extremism

Participants struggled to define extremism, and felt that terrorism was much easier to define. However, those who were familiar with Prevent were more likely to be able to define extremism, and were more confident in their ability to do so, than those who were not.

Support for violence was identified spontaneously by public sector practitioners as a key marker of extremist beliefs. Participants linked violence and extremism before being prompted with definitions of extremism. Alongside this, when prompted with definitions, practitioners favoured those that made explicit reference to violence over those that did not.

However, views on the link between violence and extremism tended to weaken when practitioners were asked to define terrorism. Participants believed that terrorism always involves violence, whereas someone could hold extremist views but not be violent themselves.

Views on the link between extremism and hate crimes were mixed. Some public sector practitioners viewed perpetrators of hate crime as people who hold extremist views, while others were unsure if this is always the case.

Despite this, there was a clear perception that there are differing levels of severity in relation to extremism, terrorism and hate crime, with some using the analogy of a spectrum to describe the range involved. Simply holding extremist beliefs (but not acting upon them) was seen as the least serious of these issues – although still seen as cause for concern. Committing acts of terrorism was seen as the most serious of these issues. Meanwhile, hate crimes were seen as being less serious than terrorism but more serious than holding extremist beliefs that are not acted upon.

In addition to finding it difficult to define extremism, public sector practitioners were generally unsure of the specific behaviours that may indicate that an individual holds extremist views or may be being radicalised. Participants tended to believe that they would recognise if someone held extremist views or was being radicalised if they encountered this situation, but could not clearly articulate the specific behaviours or actions that they would look out for.

Conversely, public sector practitioners tended to find it easier to talk about the range of factors that might make an individual vulnerable to extremism. There was recognition that multiple factors could make someone more vulnerable to extremist ideologies and that these factors may interact and influence one another (for example, living in poverty and being socially excluded).

Views on extremism in Scotland

Extremism was seen by public sector practitioners to be a problem in Scotland. However, it was viewed as a much smaller problem in Scotland than in the rest of the UK and the rest of the world.

Public sector practitioners also had a clear perception that extremism is a growing problem in Scotland. Some practitioners in Prevent-related roles questioned whether this was due to increasing awareness and knowledge of Prevent amongst practitioners, or an actual rise in extremism.

Amongst public sector practitioners there was a relatively high level of uncertainty about the prevalence of extremism in their own local areas and in Scotland more widely compared with further afield. This was particularly the case for those who were less familiar with the Prevent aspect of their roles, suggesting that their perceptions were less likely to be drawn from their own experience. Instead, these practitioners often referred to large-scale terrorist events outside of their own experience.

Racism and sectarianism were seen as the most prevalent types of problematic beliefs within Scotland. However, public sector practitioners did not always consider these attitudes and beliefs to be extremist. This was linked to perceptions among some respondents that these attitudes and beliefs are commonplace and therefore could not be considered ‘extreme’. Other practitioners said that racism and sectarianism, although wrong, rarely lead to acts of terrorism, and were therefore not extremist.

Conversely, Islamist[2] extremism was seen as very uncommon in Scotland, and usually associated with violence and/or acts of terrorism. A small number of public sector practitioners expressed views that were prejudiced against Muslims during interviews.

Public sector practitioners who indicated that they were more familiar with Prevent were more likely than those who were less familiar with Prevent to cite right-wing extremism as a big problem in Scotland. Similarly, a handful of public sector practitioners with Prevent-related roles who worked closely with Prevent referrals mentioned mixed, unstable and unclear concerns[3] as being prevalent in Scotland.

In contrast, public sector practitioners were more likely to see Islamist extremism as a big problem in Scotland if they had not heard of Prevent or did not see it as part of their role.

Experiences of extremism in public sector practitioners’ work

Only a minority (39%) of public sector practitioners who took part in the research reported having had an experience of extremism as part of their work.

Practitioners working in local authorities were most likely to report having had an experience of extremism at work, followed by those in the prison and police sectors. Unsurprisingly, practitioners whose job role involves managing Prevent concerns were more likely to report having experiences of extremism as part of their work, likely due to their responsibility to manage referrals.

Those who reported having had an experience of extremism in their job role tended to discuss the beliefs, attitudes and ideologies that they had either witnessed or heard about, rather than the behaviours that had led them to identifying that someone held extremist views.

The most common setting for an experience of extremism referenced in both the qualitative and quantitative research was in schools. This was noted both by education practitioners and by practitioners working in the police and local authority sectors.

Understanding of the Prevent duty in public sector practitioners’ work

A significant minority (16%) of respondents reported never having heard of Prevent, with public sector practitioners in the health and social care sector (23%) and in Prevent non-managerial roles (20%) most likely to claim to be unaware of Prevent.

Although the majority were aware of Prevent, before seeing an explanation of the Prevent duty fulfilling this duty tended not to be seen as a key part of public sector practitioners’ roles. In contrast, public sector practitioners were more likely to see safeguarding as a key part of their role. They tended to be more familiar with safeguarding duties, and saw them as more directly relevant to their work, particularly those working with vulnerable adults.

After being shown a description of the Prevent duty, a greater proportion of respondents saw Prevent as part of their role. After seeing this description, eight in ten (80%) respondents said that they thought Prevent was part of their role, compared with 54% before, bringing the proportion up to over the level of those who considered safeguarding to be part of their role (78%).

Delivering the Prevent duty

In the survey, over half (51%) of public sector practitioners who had heard of Prevent reported having had an experience with the Prevent duty, with most of these people citing training as their experience. In contrast, only 15% had made a Prevent referral.

The self-reported quantitative data suggests only a minority are highly confident in their ability to identify vulnerability to extremism and in knowing what to do in that situation. The qualitative data supported this, indicating that many public sector practitioners, including those in Prevent-related roles, struggled to articulate the signs of extremism they would look out for clearly, and instead often relied on ‘gut instinct’.

There was more variation between practitioners in their ability to describe what to do in the event of someone being vulnerable to extremism. Practitioners in Prevent-related roles were much more likely to be able to describe the process they would follow than practitioners without Prevent-related roles. For the latter, the first port of call tended to be reaching out to more experienced or specialised colleagues.

Practitioners were more likely to feel confident in their ability to know what to do if they came across someone at risk of being drawn into extremism than in their ability to identify such a person. This suggests that these are important areas to address in terms of increasing practitioner confidence in implementing Prevent. Practitioners may benefit from support with identifying vulnerability and risk, including those who are broadly more confident and knowledgeable on this topic.

Unsurprisingly, public sector practitioners in Prevent managerial roles were more confident in their ability to deliver the specific aspects of the Prevent duty than those who were not in managerial roles. This suggests that increased training about the Prevent duty (which those in Prevent managerial roles are more likely to have received) has a positive impact on practitioners’ confidence in their ability to identify those at risk of being drawn into extremism and what to do in those situations.

Views on Prevent in Scotland

In the qualitative and quantitative findings, views tended to be uncertain or neutral about Prevent, particularly amongst those with less familiarity with Prevent as part of their roles.

In the survey a majority of respondents selected ‘neither agree nor disagree’ or ‘don’t know’ for each statement about the reputation and performance of Prevent and its suitability for Scotland. Similarly, in qualitative discussions, when asked whether they feel favourably or unfavourably towards Prevent, practitioners without Prevent-related roles tended to feel they did not know enough to have a strong view.

Those who did express an opinion on Prevent were more likely to be positive about it than negative. For example, when asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, ‘Prevent is effective in tackling extremism in Scotland’ 41% said they agreed, compared with just 7% who said they disagreed (with 52% saying they neither agreed nor disagreed or did not know). This broad pattern was replicated for the statements ‘Prevent has a favourable reputation in Scotland’ and ‘Prevent is delivered in the right way for Scotland’.

While public sector practitioners tended to have uncertain or neutral views about Prevent, there was broad consensus in qualitative discussions that tackling extremism in Scotland was important, and that Prevent was therefore necessary.

In both the qualitative and quantitative phases of research, public sector practitioners who said they were more familiar with Prevent tended to be more positive about it than those who were less familiar. Those with managerial roles in relation to Prevent also tended to be more positive about it than those without managerial roles.

Public sector practitioners broadly felt it was important to improve Prevent and promote it more widely. When prompted with a list of potential improvements to Prevent, those that were ranked as likely to be most effective were those aiming to increase practitioner understanding of extremism.

Implications and considerations

Understanding of extremism

The research found that public sector practitioners struggled to come to a clear definition of extremism, even when prompted with potential definitions.

There are two key implications of this finding. Firstly, public sector practitioners’ ability to inform the development of a definition will be limited unless they are provided with further information and time to deliberate upon it. Secondly, if the Scottish Government does develop a definition, significant work will need to be done to ensure that this definition and its implications for practitioners’ work are clear.

Views on extremism in Scotland

The research found that behaviours which might in other contexts be seen as extremist – particularly those related to sectarianism – were not always considered to be manifestations of extremism in Scotland.

It also found a gap in awareness and understanding of the kinds of extremism that exist in Scotland, particularly amongst those who were less familiar with Prevent. This was particularly the case in relation to right-wing extremism and mixed, unstable and unclear concerns. Those who were less familiar with Prevent tended to focus most on Islamist extremism, and a small number of practitioners expressed prejudiced views about Muslims in the course of the interviews.

These findings suggest that providing up-to-date guidance on the extremist beliefs, ideologies and behaviours that public sector practitioners should be aware of in Scotland will improve the effective implementation of the Prevent duty. Secondly, this research suggests that work may need to be done to address prejudiced views amongst a small number of public sector practitioners to ensure they are fairly and consistently applying the Prevent duty.

Understanding of the Prevent duty in public sector practitioners’ work

Safeguarding was initially seen as a part of the vast majority of public sector practitioners’ roles, whereas Prevent was not. There was a sense that safeguarding duties felt more familiar, and appeared to have more direct relevance to roles than Prevent duties, especially if a practitioner’s role involved frequently working with vulnerable audiences.

Nonetheless, the research found that there was appetite for increasing awareness and understanding about Prevent among public sector practitioners. The research also found that presenting public sector practitioners with a definition of Prevent raised awareness of the Prevent duty as part of their role.

Therefore, this research suggests that raising awareness of the Prevent duty being part of public sector practitioners’ roles is necessary and may be impactful.

The findings also suggest that emphasising the safeguarding aspect of Prevent may increase the relevance of Prevent for public sector practitioners who see safeguarding as a relevant aspect of their role.

Delivery of the Prevent duty

While public sector practitioners were confident in identifying the factors that might make an individual more vulnerable to extremism, they often struggled to articulate specific behaviours they would look for that would indicate that an individual held extremist beliefs. Alongside this, understanding of the Prevent referral process was low amongst those practitioners without a Prevent-related role.

Therefore, this research suggests there would be value in raising awareness among public sector practitioners using training and guidance which provides practical advice on behaviours to look out for and what to do in the event that possible extremist behaviours have been identified.

In terms of potential improvements to the training provided, given the diversity of public sector practitioners’ interaction with the public in relation to their job roles and sectors, guidance on behaviours to look out for should ideally be tailored to their roles and sectors. More broadly, tailoring the language on delivering the Prevent duty to different roles and sectors may help public sector practitioners engage with the Prevent duty guidance.


Email: SVT@gov.scot

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