What Shamima Begum tells us about extremism and schools

Shamima Begum's story shows how crucial it is to talk to pupils about extremism, says one of her former teachers

Nick Ward

Shamima Begum: The story of how the London teenager was groomed shows how important it is for schools to talk about extremism, says one of her former teachers

A 15-year-old girl encounters adults online who are looking to exploit her. They send her messages and pictures, telling her that if she does what they want, her life will be better. They tell her that she is smart, beautiful and that she is important. She matters. If she ignores her teachers and her friends and just follows their instructions, then she will get what she has always wanted: a handsome young husband and the adventure of a lifetime. They lie to her to compel her to do their bidding.

To many of us, this will be a familiar story: this is the grooming of a child in order to abuse them. Shamima Begum was this child and, ultimately, she was groomed into leaving the UK and going to Syria. There, she was married to a man much older than her, she was raped and she was indoctrinated into a death cult, one whose control even now she struggles to shake off.

She has already paid a heavy price for this: her three children have died, her husband is reportedly behind bars, she has been left trapped in an internment camp and now her British citizenship has been effectively stripped from her, leaving her stateless.

Shamima Begum was a victim of exploitation

It is a sorry tale – and one that, for me, is particularly personal, as I was briefly her teacher.

I knew her and the two other girls who left to join Isis with her. I firmly believe that the process those young girls – those children  went though is little different from what many children sadly have to go through with those who seek to sexually exploit them.

It is an important reminder to the whole education profession of our duty to try to protect the young people who are in our care, although that is not easy. We can never know completely what is happening online and in our student’s minds, but there are still things we can do.

We can seek to create trusting relationships with young people, we can make sure that they know that no matter what is happening in their home lives, they are important, that they do matter. We can make sure that we challenge extremist views when they are aired in detail, that we do not just dismiss them as ridiculous but explore them. It is only in the bright light of discussion and exploration that the contradictions of extremism of any sort truly come to light.

Of course, if those adults who know that young person think something might be amiss, then it is also the duty of all of us to seek support from other members of staff and report it. Just like in the real world, in the classroom safeguarding will only be ensured and extremism defeated when we talk about these issues.

We must ensure that our young people understand extremism and, critically, the tactics that those who espouse it use to recruit people to the cause. Maybe if we had talked about it more in 2015 then the tragedy of Amira, Kadiza and Shamima – the tragedy of three children groomed and abused – might have been avoided.

Nick Ward is a former teacher who now works as a charity director in Scotland and is a candidate for the Labour Party in this May's Scottish Parliament elections

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Nick Ward

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