Teachers should tackle Islamist extremism among pupils in the same way they would treat eating disorders, a leading counter-terrorism expert has said.
Schools are under mounting pressure to protect pupils from radicalisation and teachers are on the front line in the government’s battle against extremism. Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer at the counter-extremism thinktank Quilliam, said that the problem should be treated not as a “national security threat”, but rather as a safeguarding issue, much like child sexual abuse or eating disorders.
Speaking at a conference in London, Mr Russell said that taking such an approach was particularly important when addressing online activity.
His stance has been backed by the head of a school attended by an Islamic State (IS) fighter, who was killed in Syria.
Mr Russell argued that the internet was the “new battleground” in the war against radicalisation, but urged teachers not to be daunted by the prospect of policing web activity.
“[Online] need not be a scary space,” he said. “People don’t go online and become accidentally radicalised. More often than not we see the initial indicators offline before they are exploited online. If we can treat it as a broader safeguarding [issue], then we should be able to treat it in the same way as we treat child sexual abuse imagery, bullying or eating disorders.
“We need to use technology to the best of our ability to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience.”
Teachers can do this by observing what their students are doing online, he said: “Monitoring is a really good way to safeguard young people. It automatically turns the online space into a more offline domain, which we’re happier dealing with.”
Mr Russell added: “We need to make sure that we teach digital literacy and critical thinking skills to our young people so they’re not vulnerable to groomers that might be online.”
Under the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism programme, school staff are required to look for signs of radicalisation among students. This has led to concerns in the profession about the lack of training being provided to spot the tell-tale signs.
The problem of young people being radicalised over the internet was brought into sharp focus in June when it emerged that Talha Asmal, a 17-year-old pupil from Mirfield Free Grammar and Sixth Form near Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, had died after reportedly detonating a vehicle fitted with explosives, while fighting for IS in Iraq. Talha’s parents later said that their son had been groomed online by extremists.
Graham Best, principal of St John’s College in Portsmouth, taught a student who later went on to join IS at the age of 19. Mehdi Hassan, who attended the independent school up to the age of 14, was killed while fighting in Syria.
Mr Best said he agreed that extremism should be treated as a safeguarding issue, although he noted that Mehdi had been “groomed” at his local mosque rather than online. And Mr Best warned that teachers should not be “too didactic” when tackling the issue.
“Any crisis that comes up, schools will deal with it,” he said. “I remember in the 1980s it was Aids and HIV. It is right that we do [deal with it]. But you have to be careful. If you are too didactic then pupils will react against you.”
Concerns have been raised by classroom leaders about the quality and efficacy of training currently on offer to the profession to meet the requirements of the new Prevent strategy.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL union, said she “fully supported” Quilliam’s approach, but was heavily critical of the quality of training offered to teachers.
“A recent survey of our members showed that the quality of Prevent training on offer was inadequate and was not properly conducted,” Dr Bousted said. “People were being told that they had been sufficiently trained in the Prevent programme after just 30 minutes of online training.
“[Tackling extremism] has to be viewed as a safeguarding issue because that is the framework that teachers understand best and have training in. Their professional and ethical responsibility is the safety of the children in their class.”
For more on radicalisation, see pages 42-43
Prevent guidelines: know your duties
The new responsibilities placed upon teachers include:
assessing the risk of children being drawn into terrorism or extremism;
being alert to changes in children’s behaviour, which could indicate that they are at risk of radicalisation;
having robust safeguarding policies in place to protect these children;
intervening wherever necessary and referring children to the appropriate authorities;
understanding when it is appropriate to refer children to the Home Office’s Channel programme, which provides support for children who are vulnerable to extremism;
vetting visiting speakers – whether invited by staff or by pupils – for suitability;
challenging extremist ideas that might be used to legitimise terrorism;
ensuring that filters are in place to prevent pupils from accessing terrorist and extremist material online.