Teachers have claimed that they are being pressured to spy on their own students because of new counterterrorism laws which they say risk scapegoating Muslim school children and stifling discussion of controversial issues in the classroom.

Delegates attending this week’s conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the UK’s largest union of school staff, voted in favour of a motion criticising the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy – “Prevent” – after hearing that teachers were being used as “front-line stormtroopers” to monitor students for signs of extremism.

“We have to be clear that we are being put in the position where we are being expected to be the front-line stormtroopers, who listen, spy and notify the authorities about students that we may be suspicious of,” Jan Nielsen, a teacher from London, told the conference.

The motion also questioned new regulations requiring schools to actively promote so-called “fundamental British values”, defined by the government as a commitment to “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.

“Telling teachers to teach British values is an attempt to scapegoat children and Muslim students in particular so the government can look like they are being tough on terror and immigrant communities who do not fall into line,” Vendathal Premkumar, another teacher, told the conference.

Prevent has long been a source of resentment among many British Muslims, with critics complaining that it treats the entire Muslim community as a security threat and subjects it to discriminatory levels of surveillance and harassment.

Senior officials have also questioned its effectiveness, with Eliza Manningham-Buller, a former head of the UK’s MI5 security agency, telling parliament that Prevent was “clearly not working”, and Dal Babu, a former high-ranking Muslim police officer, calling it a “toxic brand”.

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