The death of London pupil Kadiza Sultana last month was a stark reminder to the education sector of their pupils’ vulnerability to radicalisation. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, aware of the risk of extremist targeting, last week announced new work to help safeguard youngsters. This included a helpline, as well as providing advice and support for parents on issues around radicalisation. It was a positive and much-needed step.
As director of Inspire, a counter-extremist organisation, I am under no illusions over the current threat of radicalisation. As I outline in my new book, The Battle for British Islam, I have seen first-hand how young British Muslims are being aggressively exposed and recruited to anti-Western Islamist ideas. Both online and in communities, deliberate efforts are being made to complicate their sense of belonging and identity. A problem clearly exists when girls aged 13 and boys as young as 11 believe the UK, their home country, is the enemy; they increasingly hold violent views and aspire to live in Islamic State territory.
This has long been a concern for many Muslim parents. After the 2005 London bombings, many mothers contacted me, expressing fear that their children could become radicalised into committing acts of terror. More recently, this fear has been heightened by the unprecedented peril of Isis propaganda and its use of social media to reach children. To the horror of parents, many of whom feel helpless against this new threat, they find themselves having to deal with the unparalleled phenomenon of the “bedroom radical”. These parents welcome the support that teachers can provide.
Isis is by no means the only group targeting young people. Far-right extremists are also seeking to radicalise impressionable youngsters. There are now widespread reports of how, with the fragmentation of established far-right groups, more extreme factions have emerged that are focusing their attentions on recruiting a new generation to their world view. Inevitably this has led to anti-Muslim rhetoric and bullying of Muslim pupils in schools. Childline recognised this back in 2014, when it highlighted a 69 per cent increase in racist bullying.
Teachers are key to reversing this trend. Last year, Inspire delivered training to 5,000 teachers on safeguarding pupils from radicalisation. This took place in towns across the country including Dewsbury, which was rocked by the news of 17-year-old Talha Asmal who – after dutifully handing in his school homework – left the same day to become a suicide bomber for Isis. Teachers in Barking and Dagenham have also shared concerns about growing far-right extremism among youngsters, who are increasingly encouraging hatred and violence against Muslims in particular.
I have also taken part in delivering Prevent Duty training to hundreds of teachers for the Association of Schools and College Leaders, during which they have shared stories, including cases of parents radicalising their own children. These are realities that we cannot ignore. Children’s futures are at stake, but so is the polarisation of our society, as extremists of all kinds encourage hatred and division.
Despite much negative reporting on Prevent, I have seen first-hand how the strategy has saved children’s lives, whether preventing them from joining Isis or providing support to those who have been exposed to extremist thinking. These youngsters have returned to what they should be doing: gaining an education and taking part in school life. A key reason for their ability to do so has been teachers’ awareness of when pupils are vulnerable and require support. Training for this was made available to them through Prevent.
There have been concerns that Prevent seeks to close down discussion in classrooms and that teachers are expected to spy on pupils. Both claims are unfounded and the very opposite of what Prevent and Ofsted are calling for. Those schools that understand their role in safeguarding children from radicalisation recognise that discussion and debate is precisely what is required to counter extreme views.
A problem clearly exists when 11-year-olds see their home country as the enemy
There are also concerns about the quality of teacher training on the issue of extremism; many teachers have expressed to me quite openly, for example, their inability to distinguish between conservative interpretations of Islam and extreme views. Such honesty is appreciated; it is often this confusion that has made it more difficult for staff to understand what signs of radicalisation they should be looking for.
More broadly, however, I believe that schools can play a successful role in countering extreme views. For example, teaching critical-thinking skills, for which children are taught not what to think, but how to think, is key to providing them with the ability to decipher what is propaganda and what is fact.
I am a firm advocate of schools being at the forefront of teaching pupils the value of universal human rights. This should be part of the national curriculum or, at the very least, part of PSHE classes. Why does this matter? Because these rights undermine any and all extremist beliefs. Islamist extreme ideologies promote gender discrimination and antiSemitic views, opposition to LGBT rights and intolerance to minority groups, whether within the Muslim faith or outside of it. Teaching human rights to pupils from an early age helps build resilience to extremist ideologies.
The unfortunate reality is that neither Islamist nor far-right extremism are going away any time soon. This means that pupils are vulnerable. Schools can push back and not only protect Britain’s children, but also our multicultural, pluralistic and open society.
Sara Khan is co-author of The Battle for British Islam, and co-founder of counter-extremism and women’s rights body Inspire