My blueprint for schools to fight terrorism

30th May 2008 at 01:00
"Our generation's greatest challenge is learning to live in a crowded and interconnected world that is creating unprecedented pressures on human society
"Our generation's greatest challenge is learning to live in a crowded and interconnected world that is creating unprecedented pressures on human society."

So said Professor Jeffery Sachs, of Columbia University. A young Muslim woman's blog put it rather more provocatively: "Instead of rappers glamourising gun-crime, it is extremists glamourising terrorism."

The reality is that a tiny minority do seek to radicalise young people with an ideology advocating division, hatred and violence, and justifies criminal activity through a distorted interpretation of a peaceful religion.

And of all the complex issues teachers and school leaders have to cope with, this is perhaps one of the most difficult. It has been brought home to me in meetings I have had with heads who have lived through former pupils being arrested, and discussed with them what more we might do to support vulnerable pupils.

Unfortunately, we have to recognise that a very small number of school children may already be at risk of being drawn into criminal activity inspired by extremists. This is not to suggest that radicalisation is taking place in our schools. However, we must ensure that schools are equipped to face this challenge as much as any other.

Dealing with violent extremists is nothing new for the UK and we have learnt that a security response is not enough. We need to address the underlying issues that drive people into the hands of violent extremists, and encourage local communities to come together to reject cruelty and violence.

So the Government will next week publish new guidance for local authorities and police to work with schools, youth services, community and other groups to prevent violent extremism, and help ensure that every young person feels a part of their society, and resilient to those who seek to divide rather than unite.

This guidance has been drawn up by my Department as well as the Home Office and Department for Communities and Local Government because it is vital that we work with children and young people and consider the early influences that can shape their lives.

Extremists of every persuasion tend to paint the world as black and white, accentuating division and difference, and exploiting fears based on ignorance or prejudice. Education can be a powerful weapon against this.

Giving young people the opportunity to learn about different cultures and faiths, and - crucially - to gain an understanding of the values we share, will also help to build mutual respect and tolerance from an early age, and create an environment where extremism cannot flourish.

Young people tell us that school is the place they feel most able to discuss difficult issues. So I would urge schools to allow space for debate and to think about how the curriculum can equip them to challenge extremist views. The Who Do We Think We Are week in June, or the new 'living together in the UK' aspects of citizenship education, are important opportunities to do this, alongside history, PSHE, and RE.

I am talking with heads, directors of children's services, and teaching unions about developing specific local advice and support for schools, to be published in the Autumn. I look forward to hearing much more about how we can all better support young people in rejecting extremist messages and continue to build strong, peaceful and vibrant communities.

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

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