Extremism: 'Open and frank' discussions key to preventing radicalisation

Teachers view their role in tackling extremism as one of mandated reporting of pupils at risk of radicalisation rather than education.

A study warns that extreme views such as racism, misogynistic views and homophobia are widespread in classrooms across the country but that education on these issues is “highly variable".

The study (Taylor et al, 2021) was commissioned by the charity SINCE 9/11 and published to mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America which killed almost 3,000 people.

It says that teachers lack the resources and training to teach pupils how to discuss and reject dangerous extremist views and ideologies.

It adds that teachers have no time in an overcrowded curriculum to teach pupils about violent and what it terms “hateful extremism”.

Schools in the study suggested that rather than education on these issues, the government priority is for them to focus on seeking out and reporting pupils who are thought to be at risk of radicalisation. Schools are required to do this under the 2015 Prevent Duty (DfE, 2015).

Any teaching that does take place, the study found, is “highly variable", and in some cases "superficial" and "tokenistic".

Entitled Addressing extremism through the classroom, the report has been co-authored by a team of academics from the UCL Institute of Education and involves interviews with 96 teachers in schools in England.

In the last financial year, data shows that young people under 24 have accounted for nearly 60 per cent of extreme rightwing terror arrests. In total, young people made up 13 per cent of arrests for terrorism, compared to five per cent in the previous year.

The teachers in the study expressed concern at a rise in pupils looking at hateful content online, especially during lockdowns. More than half had heard pupils express far-right extremist views in their classroom, while around three-quarters had heard “extremist views about women” or Islamophobia.

Almost 90 per cent had heard conspiracy theories, such as that Bill Gates “controlled people via microchips in Covid vaccines”.

The report adds: “The theme of conspiracy theories and online disinformation was significant in this research and suggests that this in an emerging area that needs consideration.”

The study found that many teachers are worried about talking about extreme views in the classroom and recognised the conflict between fostering open discussions while ensuring the classroom remained a “safe space” for all students.

The report states: “Some teachers expressed concerns about getting it ‘wrong’ especially on matters related to race. Others talked about not knowing how much of their own views to share in classroom discussions, and about the difficulty of hearing views that conflicted with their own values. For those teachers who did feel confident, underpinning their strategies was a commitment to open and frank discussion.”

Overall, nearly all teachers reported feeling at least “somewhat confident” in dealing with extreme views when encountered, however, a fifth of teachers felt only “somewhat” or “not at all” confident in dealing with conspiracy theories and far-right extremism.

The report also echoes previous concerns that the Prevent Duty itself “may act as an inhibitor of candid discussion, ironically leading to missed opportunities for challenging extreme views”.

And while recognising that there is “scepticism” about the teaching of Fundamental British Values (FBVs) as a means of addressing extremism, the study says that teachers are using these as a “pedagogical resource to discuss issues associated with democracy and being British”.

FBVs were introduced seven years ago (DfE, 2014) and states that “schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. The UCL study recommends that FBVs should be used as “a starting point for discussions on democracy, diversity and dissent”.

The study also concludes that the best approaches involve tackling extremism via school ethos including enacting anti-discrimination policies consistently.

“Prejudiced and discriminatory beliefs and actions provide an entry point for extremist ideas. Schools need clear policies and guidelines for addressing all forms of discrimination and students need to be made aware of these and to be encouraged to raise issues when they occur.

“These should be supplemented by consistent messaging in schools and classrooms, and in specifically designed programmes, that enhances students’ resilience, self-confidence and personal development.”

The study also calls on schools to “promote opportunities for students to discuss and problematise extremist viewpoints”. This goes hand-in-hand with developing critical literacy skills.

The report adds: “Extremist viewpoints are already being discussed in many schools and these discussions should be encouraged and not avoided. In particular, school leaders should promote opportunities in the curriculum and in wider school life, such as tutor times, assemblies and in incidental conversations with students, and encourage the use of these opportunities for such views to be problematised.

“This does not have to involve discussion of the topic of extremism itself, but rather finding space to allow for the discussion of contemporary and historical controversial issues in which more extreme views may be expressed and challenged.”

However, alongside all of this, the study says there needs to be a “concerted effort” from government to support schools in finding the time and resource to focus fully on this agenda.

Co-author of the study, Dr Becky Taylor, said: “This report shows that some schools fail to move beyond surface-level explorations of violence, extremism and radicalisation, however it is without doubt that schools can play an important role.

“In addition to having set policies and programmes designed to address discrimination, many schools already have supplementary messaging in schools and classrooms to enhance students’ resilience and self-confidence.

“Engaging well with their local communities and ensuring that schools and teachers are supported and appropriately resourced can help young people to problematise ‘hateful extremism’.

“We are convinced that teachers need to be able to bring their own pedagogical expertise to the classroom, enhanced through appropriate professional development, to ensure their classrooms are safe environments for open discussion.”

Kamal Hanif, a trustee of SINCE 9/11, an expert on preventing violent extremism in schools and executive principal of the Waverley Education Foundation, a multi-academy trust in Birmingham, said that the research was “a wake-up call for us all”.

He added: “We must make sure that every pupil is taught how to reject extremist beliefs and ideologies. We urgently need to equip schools with the tools to teach pupils how to reject extremist views. Dangerous ideologies must never be swept under the carpet.

“We know that right now, extremists are trying to lure young people into a world of hatred and violence, both online and in person. We must use the power of education to fight back and help young people stand up and reject extremism and violence. We need far more clarity from government about the need to have time in the curriculum for frank and open discussions about extremism.”