MINISTERS have provoked anger for telling teachers to watch out for critics of Covid-19 public health messaging in a bid to prevent radicalisation of children.

The Education Scotland ‘prevent extremism’ advice says that official “reporting procedures” should be implemented to curb children’s access to fake news and combat “extremists’ disinformation” over Covid-19 - indicating effectively that the parents could end up carrying the can.

The document backed by government even suggests using the public broadcaster the BBC as a trusted source to identify misleading content as they seek to stop the risks of “radicalisation” of children.

It provides a list of “prominent extremist narratives” over Covid including “wider conspiracy theories” relating to 5G, the Scottish Government’s test and protect scheme and the Covid vaccine which it said “can be detrimental to public health messaging”.

They are placed on the list alongside anti-Semitic conspiracies, anti-Chinese hatred and claims British Muslims have spread the virus by flouting lockdown rules.

The Education Scotland briefing, endorsed by ministers tells teachers that conspiracy theories offer a “simplifying model for things that cannot be explained or easily understood.

HeraldScotland:

"They typically involve an ‘alternative’ explanation for an event or situation to those provided by governments and official international bodies, sometimes suggesting a group, individual or organisation is responsible or hiding information from the public."

There has been past legitimate criticism of the national Test and Protect scheme and its effectiveness from the likes of Scottish Care, the umbrella body for social care, which was in the early days concerned about the ability for the country to test for the disease.

Scotland was testing at little over a third of its capacity on the three days after Nicola Sturgeon said the ability to screen had been ramped up in preparation for the national Test and Protect scheme.

There has also been questions raised over the privacy of Scotland's contact tracing Test and Protect app as official documents show Amazon has access to "personal information" including phone numbers, infection details and IP addresses. There have also been concerns over false alarms which have led to quarantining.

READ MORE: 'Only NHS has access': Ministers insist Amazon is not getting data from a million users of Scotland's Test and Protect app

Education Scotland in its briefing to senior leaders, teachers and safeguarding leads, refers to a "significant decline" in referrals under Police Scotland's Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy.

It said said that raises "concerns about the welfare of vulnerable children and young people".

The briefing comes as it emerged there has been a 21% annual drop in referrals under Prevent in the year to March 31, 2020.

There has been shock at the nature of the strategy which it is feared wrongly seeks to curb state criticism.

Jo Bisset, organiser of UFT Scotland, the parents group campaigners which has been strongly campaigning for children to return to school normally in Scotland and has been critical of Scottish Government policies said: “This is an incredible order for the Scottish Government to impose on teachers.

HeraldScotland:

“If children need protected from anything, it’s the shambolic handling of the Covid crisis by the Scottish Government and the opposition parties who refused to hold them to account.

“There used to be a time in Scottish education when children were encouraged to think for themselves and treat government messages with a healthy scepticism.

“The Scottish Government clearly doesn’t share that view any longer, and the idea that criticism of public health messaging could be put alongside issues as serious as anti-semitism is an insult to all concerned.”

Richard Haley, chairman of the civil liberties group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities says that while disinformation and "manipulative narratives" over Covid risk undermine public adherence to health precautions, the counter-extremism strategy is in danger of stifling debate.

He added: "Reporting children or their families as potential extremists has no place in such an approach. 

"It risks discouraging children from inquisitive engagement with public health strategies like 'test and protect' and vaccination.

READ MORE: No trace: Concern as effectiveness of Scotland's coronavirus tracking cannot yet be demonstrated

"Yet these are matters that young people will need to engage with if our society is to deal successfully with what may turn out to be a prolonged pandemic, or with future pandemics."

He added: "The counter-extremism strategy is as manipulative as the narratives that in this case it is trying to tackle. It tends to evade and trivialise substantive political discussion and focuses instead on psychological factors that supposedly create vulnerability to radicalisation.

"Schools need to be firm in insisting on health precautions. But they also need to take a patient and educational approach to the questions that arise in children's minds and the views children arrive at."

One teacher who alerted the Herald to the guidance described it as "disturbing", saying: "I understand the need for children to understand what fake news is and it is important they get the key messages around Covid, but I cannot believe that I have to keep an eye on criticism of the government's test and protect, for example, which is what this implies."

The Covid guidance over how "extremists" are using the pandemic to "promote disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories" says: "It is important that settings consider the radicalisation concerns, particularly as children and young people may have been exposed to disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories, sometimes called ‘fake news’, as extremists seek to exploit COVID-19 to spread hateful narratives and increase mistrust and division."

It calls on authorities to "ensure both staff and learners are clear on the reporting procedures to raise concerns".

HeraldScotland:

Explaining the "extremist themes during the pandemic" it compiles a list of "false and misleading narratives about the virus which have been spread, particularly online, often to place blame on ‘out-groups’ and minorities.

"This can further incite hatred, justify violence and divide communities. While some of this occurs on popular social media platforms, it can also be found on lesser-known, unregulated platforms," it said. "These sites can include easily available extreme and conspiratorial content."

In highlighting numerous "examples of prominent extremist narratives relating to the pandemic" it produces a list which included: "Wider conspiracy theories relating to 5G, test and protect and anti-vax, which can be detrimental to public health messaging."

READ MORE: Unreliable 'name and shame' Covid-19 test tracking in Scots care homes abandoned

Concerns were raised around 5G - the newest generation of mobile telecommunications infrastructure - about the false notion that it is the true cause of the coronavirus pandemic and in the early days of the crisis there were suspected arson attacks on mobile phone masts in Birmingham, Liverpool and Merseyside.

The list also included "anti-Semitic conspiracies blaming the Jewish community for spreading the virus or suggesting that Covid-19 is a ‘Jewish plot'.

It also refers to false claims that "British Muslims have flouted social distancing rules and spread COVID-19".

It also warns of narratives "promoting Anti-Chinese hatred" as well as "a Daesh-inspired" conspiracy theory claiming that "the pandemic is divine punishment for the west’s ‘sinful’ behaviours and using this to promote the need for a Caliphate in the West".

It also warns of "extremely right-wing conspiracies claiming that society is collapsing and that right-wing terrorism can accelerate its end through inciting social conflict, violence and ultimately a race war".

The Education Scotland document says: "The education sector is best placed to understand the needs of their learners and will be familiar with support mechanisms already in place.

"If you are concerned about a learner who may be vulnerable to radicalisation, your first course of action should be to follow your school or setting’s safeguarding procedures."

The department further says: "Staff should have a clear understanding of how the holding of views which endorse extremism can lead to safeguarding issues for the wellbeing of the individual young person. Local authorities would therefore be expected to demonstrate an awareness of the Prevent strategy in their work to implement the Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) approach.

"Helping to challenge misinformed views and perceptions amongst learners and challenging commonly held myths, for example regarding particular communities, requires skilled practitioners who use techniques that open up discussion."

Among other "measures" that the education sector should consider when assessing the risks to children and young people, Education Scotland suggests reviewing a school or setting’s safeguarding/risk assessment processes or procedures to ensure that they "include the risks of radicalisation, and consider the impact of Covid-19 and the information in this briefing, as well as any local changes in risk or community tensions".

HeraldScotland:

It advocates dedicating time to "rebuilding relationships between children and young people and trusted adults and positive role models, which may have been absent during the pandemic".

It warns: "This absence may have led to extremist narratives and individuals who are offering an explanation for the pandemic increasing in appeal and going unchallenged."

It says curriculum opportunities should be reviewed for "critical thinking, online safety, and media literacy".

It provides "useful resources" that can help students "identify misleading content" including the BBC. It says: "This site offers a range of resources on understanding and responding to fake news".

It also promotes the UK Government's Share Checklist "offering five easy steps to follow to identify whether information might be false".

It is not the first time ministers and Education Scotland have been in hot water over advice to teachers.

Three years ago, there was anger over a warning not to use the phrase "British values".

Guidance on discussing sensitive issues such as terrorism in class claims the term can be “offensive” — and even lead to pupils being radicalised.

Advice issued by Education Scotland told teachers to instead use the words “shared values”.

The edict entitled 'problematic language' also urged teachers not to say the likes of “war on terror”, “Islamist extremist/terrorist”, “jihad/jihadist” or “radical” in current affairs lessons.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Our public health guidance is based on expert scientific advice. It supports schools, staff and pupils to follow the measures needed to stop further spread of the virus, and no one should object to measures to combat the spread of false and potentially damaging claims.” 

Education Scotland was approached for comment.