A few years ago, a teacher friend told me that she had been administering an English speaking and listening exam to her group of Year 11s. Having instructed them to prepare a speech making an argument they would have to defend under questioning, nothing in her training had prepared her for the opening statement of one young man’s strident speech: "9/11 was invented to kill Muslims".
Terminating the exam and reviewing the rest of his notes, she found references to Zionist conspiracies, garbled slogans and a deep-seated hatred of the American and British governments. Despite the fact that she passed on her concerns about his vulnerability to potential extremist influences, no action was taken. Maybe a decision was taken to ease off because of his difficult home life or maybe his explanation about creating a persona was given the benefit of the doubt. He was entitled to free speech, of course, but where had he got his information from? Who was influencing him? For a teacher who was inexperienced at the time, this level of uncertainty about how to respond was deeply troubling.
Teachers have a position of influence
Since then, the government has made it a legal duty for teachers and schools to "have a due regard to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism", meaning that educators must take their responsibility to protect pupils from radicalisation towards violence as seriously as any other safeguarding concern. Teachers can no longer pretend that these issues exist beyond their professional responsibilities. They are uniquely placed in a child’s life to influence them positively through open and robust debates, to provide an intellectual and emotional anchor for the vulnerable, and to pass on information that could help prevent a young person’s life from being ruined.
Having left teaching, I now work for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organisation that creates education programmes that empower young people against hate. From conversations I have had with friends within the profession, I realise that balancing this new duty with another of encouraging responsible free speech will be challenging, but – as I hope to demonstrate – entirely feasible.
The misleading statement by Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT teaching union, that radicalisation is a problem "on social media, not on school premises" reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how online and offline worlds overlap for today’s youth. There is substantial evidence that extremism is becoming a growing problem in our schools.
According to a recent Press Association study, in the past two years there has been a 61 per cent increase in hate crimes at or near schools. At least 57 people who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for jihadist groups became radicalised as teenagers. How many of them might have changed their minds if they felt they could share their doubts openly with their teachers? Giving young people the confidence and support to be resilient to violent extremism is the greatest educational challenge of our times and ignoring it – or, worse, hoping the police will somehow deal with it on their own – is a gross dereliction of our responsibilities.
Embed key values in lessons
To promote social cohesion, teachers can embed key values into their lessons, such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Hackles have been raised in some quarters because some believe Prevent stigmatises Muslim communities even though a Policy Exchange survey has found that a clear majority of Muslims in Britain support government intervention to tackle extremism. In fact, following the conviction of Darren Osborne, the terrorist responsible for the Finsbury Park Mosque attack, the priority for Welsh schools and authorities is how to tackle far-right extremism. Framing this as a universal problem that affects all communities is not only inclusive; it is also true.
With no signs of the flood of misinformation in newsfeeds abating, young people will need guidance on how to recognise fake news and manipulative narratives. Boosting skills in source analysis, media literacy and forming evidence-based arguments is fundamental to subjects like English and history, but all teachers in their capacity as form tutors can instil those values in form-time through open, safe discussion. Using resources like Extreme Dialogue, a series of video testimonies by former extremists and survivors, helps to stimulate productive discussions about radicalisation and terror. Extracurricular activities like Youth Parliament, the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, the Model UN, debating clubs like Debate Mate, and mock elections are all positive ways in which teachers and students can celebrate and explore these values together.
No matter how many proactive steps teachers take to promote shared values in their schools and classrooms, there is still much uncertainty about how to identify children who are at risk of being radicalised and need support. In 2015, the failure to implement a coherent, multi-agency policy against extremism became acute. Swayed initially by an online influencer and having spurred each other on within their own school friendship group, three teenagers from Bethnal Green Academy emigrated to marry jihadists in Syria. A few months before, police had interviewed the girls without their families’ knowledge about a close friend who had already absconded to join Islamic State. Needless to say, the family were devastated and angered at being kept in the dark. It is this joining of the dots between all those connected with young people that makes the Prevent duty so essential.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of resources available from the NSPCC and the government’s Educate Against Hate websites that provide useful guidelines. They include advice on how to refer a young person if they show signs of holding extreme views combined with some of the following signals: abrupt behavioural changes; an unwillingness to engage with students who are different or hold different points of view; distancing themselves from old friends; and being secretive in discussing their whereabouts or their online behaviour.
Fears of a 'chilling effect' unfounded
By passing concerns on to your school’s safeguarding lead, you will be providing information that may help to identify and support a child at risk of radicalisation. Despite criticism that the new duty undermines trust between educators and pupils, a recent survey has found that most teachers disagree that there is a new "chilling effect" in their conversations with students as a result of the new legislation. These guidelines need to be better communicated to teachers and parents through dedicated whole-school CPD time and parents’ evenings.
Although 2,539 individuals were referred to police and local authorities by schools, none of these children has a criminal record as a result of this intervention. Only 15 per cent of these were assigned to the government’s voluntary deradicalisation programme, with many of the others receiving softer forms of support. A safety buffer between the justice system and children exhibiting other forms of unsafe behaviour exists, so why not for those at risk of violent extremism? Far from compromising individual pupil liberty in some kind of elaborate Orwellian conspiracy, the inclusion of teachers and schools means that young people can finally get the extra layer of support they need and police don’t have to resort to more security-related responses.
I know, deep down, that this won’t be enough for all kids. Some will need specialist support and expertise that teachers are not equipped to provide. Equally, we cannot defer all these safeguarding decisions to the police and security services, or leave young people without the necessary tools to make sense of an online world replete with confusing, divisive voices. Outside the home, for many of these children, teachers are their connection with the wider world; their guides and guardians. We can’t just abandon them to face a rising tide of extremism and hate alone.
Joe McElroy is an education associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue