Schools should be forced by law to teach students about the dangers of extremism, experts have said after a suspected terrorist attack in London last week.
Lee Rigby, a 25-year-old soldier, was stabbed to death by two men in the street in Woolwich, southeast London, in an attack apparently motivated by Islamic extremism.
The British government has announced that a taskforce will be established to combat extremism and has said that schools will be given a key role in identifying and tackling radicalisation, alongside prisons, colleges and universities. Ministers have not yet released details, but leading authorities in extremism and community cohesion have said that the expectations placed on schools must be increased and made more explicit.
Professor Ted Cantle, a former government adviser and the founder of the Institute of Community Cohesion, told TES that teaching about extremism must be made a statutory part of the school curriculum. "It must be part of a debate about community and democracy, and legitimate and illegitimate protests. There must be a real, sustained attempt to engage young people in politics," he said.
The stabbing in London followed a terrorist attack in Boston, US, in April, which also raised fears about the radicalisation of young people. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers suspected of carrying out the attack, was just 19 years old and was largely educated in the US, attending Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts.
In Paris last weekend, a French soldier was stabbed in the neck in another attack that officials said bore the hallmarks of Islamic terrorism.
The British government has faced criticism in the wake of Drummer Rigby's death for changing the focus of its "Prevent" strategy, which tackles extremism.
David Blunkett, former home secretary and education secretary in the UK government, said that "there should be a statutory duty in citizenship classes to deal with the issue of diversity and integration". He also called for issues surrounding extremism to be taught in schools, which he said had been an "essential" part of Prevent. "It was abandoned by the present coalition (government), who took away the requirement to have any mention of social cohesion in the curriculum," he said.
"While the early experimentation could undoubtedly be improved, a lot of work went on in developing a sensitive and appropriate approach, including gaining the views of pupils. We appear to have to relearn the lessons and reinvent the wheel all over again."
Counterterrorism expert Professor Michael Levi, from Cardiff University in Wales, also said that teaching about the dangers of extremism should become "part of the routine curriculum".
"Teachers should know this work doesn't have to be about police going into schools to talk to students; it can be done by specially trained teachers," he said. "In some schools - in areas affected by extremism - it will lead to tougher discussions, but this is an important part of the engagement process. If there are no serious arguments, it won't have had much impact."
A source close to schools minister David Laws said that details of what the taskforce would expect of schools were currently limited. "It is not yet clear what role there will be for schools. We will obviously want to avoid knee-jerk reactions," the source said.
Schools currently have a duty to promote community cohesion, but the requirement for school inspectors to grade them on that work was dropped last year. Professor Cantle called for that decision to be reversed. "This duty was one of the best things to have ever happened to the school curriculum and it had a great deal of success in schools, encouraging young people to get involved in contemporary debate," he said.
David Kerr, director of educational programmes for the Citizenship Foundation, said that the government should avoid adding topics to the curriculum in the aftermath of an event such as last week's London attack. The current citizenship curriculum, which says that schools should address "topical, sensitive and controversial" topics, already gave teachers sufficient scope to address extremism, he said.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said that teaching about democratic values in a civil society was the "best defence" against extremist behaviour. "It would be wrong to solve a crisis by adding something to the curriculum. Schools should be able to use their discretion, and know who to turn to if they have problems," he said.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "There is no place for extremism in any school. Our Due Diligence and Counter Extremism Division works to ensure that children and young people are safeguarded from extremist views in or out of school hours."
Photo: Tributes left to Drummer Lee Rigby, who was killed in a suspected terrorist attack in London. Photo credit: Getty
Original headline: Schools must play a key role in combating extremism, experts say