The Prevent Duty: Addressing extremism in the classroom

Written by: Alison Jamieson | Published:
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An expert on extremism, Alison Jamieson advises schools on how they can raise issues of violence and terrorism in the classroom and meet their duties under the Prevent legislation

The new Prevent duties introduced in July add up to a considerable challenge, not just for the extra safeguarding responsibilities they place on school staff but also for the knowledge and skills that are necessary to implement them.

The Prevent Duty guidance urges that schools be “safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology, and learn how to challenge these ideas”.

Young people agree: in a survey commissioned by the UK Youth Parliament in 2008, 94 per cent of those questioned thought schools were the best environment in which to discuss terrorism.

For teachers, however, the new responsibilities can appear daunting. They are required to be conversant with terms like radicalisation, terrorism and extremism and understand how (or if) these terms relate to one another; they must be alert to signs of vulnerability to involvement in terrorism among their pupils and have the competence to challenge and divert such tendencies with resilience-building counter-narratives.

How should these controversial issues be brought into the classroom? Where does the balance lie between encouraging open discussions about violence and monitoring pupils for signs of vulnerability to terrorism? What methods should be used to build resilience to extremist ideas and encourage pupils to challenge them?

Introducing ‘terrorism’

An initial approach to these “sensitive topics” is to take a step back from current preoccupations with Islamist terrorism and from the emotive language and headline slogans surrounding it.

For younger pupils, a good entry point is a broad-based discussion of the nature of violence. Violent events in nature (tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions) can be contrasted with animal violence (lions attacking a prey) and human violence, starting with the simple example of bullying, with which pupils will be familiar.

Ask pupils what the “purpose” of violence is, and suggest that with animals and humans, the aim is always a “reward”. This is also true of terrorism, although the expected reward is not just for an individual, but for a wider group or community.

For secondary pupils, a good introduction to terrorism would be a class project on Guy Fawkes, discovered trying to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605, as part of a plot with fellow Catholics to kill King James I and the Protestant aristocracy.

Alternatively, study the evolution of the word “terrorism”, first used during the “Reign of Terror” of the French Revolution in 1793/94, when it meant the use of violence by a government against its own citizens to make them fearful and obedient.

Borrow elements from the history curriculum to reflect on moral arguments concerning the use of violence. The Suffragettes, now widely admired as the vanguard of the feminist movement, were branded as terrorists in their time after they discovered the extra publicity value of violent actions to draw attention to their cause. The Suffragettes caused injury and endangered life, even if they did not intend to kill. They lost support when their methods – breaking shop windows, threatening and attacking public figures, fire-bombing buildings, churches and the homes of MPs who opposed women’s right to vote – alienated a section of those who supported their goal.

Contrast this with the principles of non-violence adopted by influential figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr. Both men represented a dissatisfied population with strong grievances but both unequivocally rejected the use of violence in pursuit of their ambitions.

Gandhi called for Indians to protest about the injustices of British colonial rule through “civil disobedience”. This notion opens up a broader discussion of non-violent protest – demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes – and shows how, in countries with freedom of speech and of assembly, such as modern Britain, democratic protest is protected as a means for citizens to influence public opinion and government.

Gandhi was called a terrorist by the British Parliament in 1932 but today his statue occupies a place of honour in London’s Parliament Square. Remind pupils of Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment for being the leader of a terrorist group and for conspiring to overthrow the South African apartheid government. Mandela refused to renounce violence as a condition of his freedom, but later received the Nobel prize for Peace. His statue also stands in Parliament Square along with those of Gandhi and of Winston Churchill, an avowed enemy of Gandhi, of Indian independence, and indeed of votes for women.

Definitions and terminology

How do the examples of Gandhi, Mandela, and the Suffragettes help to open up the debate on “terrorism”? First, they show that the term is often used as a label of dislike and disapproval, and second, that the views of a population about terrorism can change over time.

The often-quoted phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is an example of how “terrorist” and “terrorism” are used to express opinions rather than facts. There is no internationally agreed definition of the word terrorism (because of disagreements over the nature of national liberation and self-determination struggles), although most countries have their own definition.

The UK definition ( can be summarised as the use or threat of violence against persons, property or electronic systems, aimed at advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.

Having grievances, or reasons for feeling angry, and having political goals must be viewed quite separately from the choice of using violent methods to achieve them, because democracies encourage citizens to exercise their political rights (e.g. to vote) and to seek political change if they feel society is unjust.

No-one is called a terrorist because he or she seeks political power or is angry about the status quo. Opinions may be called extreme or extremist if most people disagree with them or find them unacceptable, but if they remain opinions then they remain within the law.

Terrorist methods are the key to understanding what terrorism is because they reveal how terrorists use violence, and against whom. Methods concern facts, not opinions. We start to understand what terrorism is when we observe that terrorist methods usually involve the deliberate use or threat of violence against civilians with the aim of changing the behaviour of an authority or government.

Understanding why

In order to resist and challenge pro-violence messages pupils need to understand more about terrorism and its consequences. Terrorism can be explained as a kind of social narrative or, for younger pupils, a kind of story-telling. Powerful feelings of anger, frustration and a sense of injustice – what we call grievances – bind an individual to a collective narrative which is fluid and evolves with time or under different influences.

The grievances may be genuine, imaginary or exaggerated, and can be transmitted between generations or between contemporaries. The experience of being humiliated and treated without respect can give rise to hatred for those seen as responsible. In a minority of people with grievances, the desire to avenge real or perceived wrongs, together with hatred of an enemy that is blamed for them, may encourage the choice to use violence. But it should be stressed that while grievances may be common to many, very few people become terrorists.

A decision to engage in violence may evolve gradually from influences absorbed actively or passively over months or years, or may explode in a sudden and imperative need to act. It may be mediated by other people – through peers, kinship groups, a powerful or influential communicator – or through internet and social media sites preaching violence, or by a combination of these factors.

It can be a process of seeking identity in a social group with which an individual shares aspirations or sympathy, which in all but a few, stops short of violence. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to predict who will be drawn into terrorism because the decision is influenced by “push and pull” factors that vary with every individual. There is no such thing as a linear pathway or “conveyor belt” into terrorism.

Terrorism always causes suffering and destruction, and even when there are genuine causes for anger and grievance, it rarely brings lasting benefits. Families and communities are destroyed, the desire for vengeance is passed on through “tit for tat” attacks and violence rolls onwards unless there is real determination to find a peaceful solution.

Religion and terrorism

One of the most contentious areas of terrorism concerns the role of religion, and this will inevitably arise as a subject for classroom discussion. Contemporary perceptions of religious-inspired terrorism focus on Islam, but pupils should be reminded that violent extremism has been used in the name of other religions, and on behalf of none. Christianity was a driving force of the violence inflicted by the Crusades, and by the Spanish Inquisition.

Religious doctrine is often less important as a motivating factor than experiences of discrimination against or persecution of one religious community by another religious or secular body. Examples of this can be seen in the current conflicts across the Middle East.

Pupils can also be reminded of Northern Ireland, where decades of violence grew out of historical inequalities of treatment of the minority Catholic population.

Terrorists often use a distorted view of religion to claim legitimacy for their atrocities: Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik said that he was “defending Europe’s Christian heritage” when in 2011 he murdered 77 people – mostly teenagers on a summer camp run by the ruling government party – in protest against his country’s welcome to Muslim immigrants.

Many forms of violent extremism have nothing at all to do with religion, and derive from nationalist goals – such as the desire for a homeland – or from political goals inspired by revolutionary communism.

Narratives and counter-narratives

School strategies to disrupt and resist pro-violence messages will only be successful if pupils participate in developing and shaping their own counter-narratives. As an exercise, invite them to reflect on who or what influences them, dividing influences into two groups: “media/social media” and “people in my circle”, who can be peer groups, family or important adults.

Use their responses to open a discussion on the role of fact, opinion and bias. Apply these in the first instance to influences over conversations about clothes, music or sport, and then to how these elements can change the way they listen and respond to a news story.

Explain the notion of propaganda in terms of misleading or distorted messages, usually for a political cause. Suggest how easy it is to manipulate video content or to make up a fictitious story, and invite them to create a fictitious webpage, for example to mis-sell the virtues of an imaginary product.

Ask them to think of ways in which they can protect themselves from propaganda and bias, and to look for reasons to argue against narratives or “stories” they might be inclined to accept. What factors influence their choices to “like” or believe, and vice-versa? Set up a series of debates with polarised points of view on a wide range of topics.

These could include re-introducing the death penalty, a ban on eating meat, reducing the voting age to 16, violence is always wrong, all drugs should be legal.

The appointment of pupils to represent different points of view even – or especially – if they are known to oppose them, helps to stimulate critical-thinking and builds up their capacity to argue, resist and respond.

Ideally, the government’s Prevent requirements should be rolled out as a whole-school strategy across citizenship, PSHE, history, RE and ICT. Discussing terrorism in the classroom will transcend immediate preoccupations with pupil radicalisation and extremism if the course of study draws on the wide range of geographical and ideological examples that history provides. The subject of violence should be set within a wider context of citizenship, human rights and democratic values, civil and political engagement and forms of protest, respect for diversity, the nature of identity and how we identify with others.

A range of vulnerabilities may appear in the course of these discussions, including a susceptibility to being drawn into terrorism. If this occurs, providing an opportunity for the susceptibility to emerge, be challenged and (perhaps) ultimately to be resolved within the safe space of the classroom may be of critical importance.

  • Alison Jamieson is an author writing on issues of political violence, drug trafficking and organised crime for more than 25 years. She is a former consultant to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and is co-author of Radicalisation and Terrorism: A Teacher’s Handbook for Addressing Extremism (Brilliant Publications). Visit book/radicalisation-and-terrorism-588

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