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What can schools do about radicalisation?


ClassroomSchools are increasingly seen as being on the front-lines of the battle to prevent extremism. Their duty to prevent extremism has now been enshrined in law in Section 26 of the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act which comes into force on July 1st, and which requires that schools have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This guide outlines some of the duties in the act, the debates around what this means in practice and links to some further resources available to teachers, school management and governors. The guide doesn’t constitute legal advice and exists for information only.

What must schools do about radicalisation?

The duties under the act are discussed in a UK Government document ‘Prevent Duty Guidance: for England and Wales’. It states that:

[schools] are subject to the duty to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Being drawn into terrorism includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit.

Schools are expected to be able to demonstrate their compliance with this duty, appropriate to the level of risk of radicalisation in their institution. There are three areas which the guidance document focuses on, leadership, partnership and capabilities:

People in leadership positions in schools should make sure their staff understand radicalisation, have the capabilities to deal with it, are aware of how important this duty is and can implement it effectively.

Schools need to show evidence of productive co-operation, with local Prevent staff, police and other appropriate agencies.

Staff should understand what radicalisation means and why people may be drawn into terrorism through it. They also need to understand what kind of extremism the government is interested in (see below), and what measures are available to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.

What kind of radicalisation and extremism should schools be stopping?

Central to the duties above are that teachers must understand what radicalisation and extremism are, and how they lead to terrorism. The UK Government (since the 2011 Prevent review) has defined extremism as:

vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces.

Radicalisation is defined by the UK Government within this context as the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and extremist ideologies associated with terrorist groups.

Both these terms are defined in ways which raise significant challenges for schools. In the case of ‘extremism’, the government is clear that this includes values and ideologies which may well be legal, but which could place people on a course towards supporting illegal, violent extremist views. This means that schools have a responsibility to monitor and potentially prevent the spread of legally-held opinions, as well as to refer individuals to the Government-run Channel programme. There are a number of illiberal views held by religious organisations which seem to run counter to broadly-held ‘British’ values, for example, on the role of women or the acceptability of homosexual lifestyles. The extent to which they could be said to be on the same spectrum as beliefs that are extremist or violent extremist is unclear, as issues such as these are discussed in all the major world-religions.

Religious EducationThe definition of ‘radicalisation’, which all school staff now have a duty to understand and spot, is also unclear. ‘Radicalisation’ is frequently seen as a special kind of process which is essentially linked to terrorism. However, as research has shown many terrorists are not radicals and most radicals are not terrorists. Indeed, there are many models of radicalisation most of which stress how difficult it is to predict and identify accurately.

Because of the difficulty of spotting the signs of radicalisation, there has been understandable concern about the potential of this new duty to restrict free speech and to potentially punish curiosity. Schools are places where ideas should be discussed and debated, not least to give pupils the necessary skills to identify and challenge harmful ideas themselves. However, as the government guidance itself states, these rules are an extension of schools’ responsibilities to safeguard their pupils from many potential harms. These also include sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Schools might consider the potential harm from extremist ideologies and how they might be vocalised by pupils in the wider context of safeguarding against abuse. In this context, radicalisation can be understood as a process of socialisation by which a pupil increasingly comes to hold a potentially harmful world-view.

How might schools prevent radicalisation?

Many of the criticisms of the broader Prevent agenda have argued that it singles out and securitises Muslim communities. It has been suggested that a longer-term and more successful approach to tackle radicalisation can be found in strengthening community cohesion by focusing on the links between all communities – not just in strengthening the civil society structures of Muslim communities. Another recommendation has been for schools to be prepared to react to major events (such as the Syrian conflict) by creating space for debates, fund-raising and so on. It has been argued that these activities will enable students to become active citizens and to participate more fully in democracy – through hearing different opinions and learning how to critique and challenge ideas. A similar approach has been tried in universities, by increasing the religious literacy of staff and students in order to facilitate better quality conversations about beliefs and values. This approach taps into a broader conversation about whether Religious Education (RE) in schools could be better used to educate pupils about different religions or if indeed RE needs to be re-thought to help it achieve this. A further question of literacy has been raised around how young people use the internet, highlighting the need to help young people critically appraise online sources of information. These recommendations all have their basis in academic research – although not necessarily research targeted at preventing radicalisation.

There are many programmes available to schools. In the absence in most cases of formal evaluation, it is not clear whether they have been successful at preventing radicalisation. With this in mind the following list of programmes is provided without any recommendation as to their efficacy. The list is not exhaustive and includes resources aimed at tackling far-right and Islamist extremism, as well as encompassing different approaches, including supporting Religious Education (RE) provision, increasing democratic participation, questioning ideas of identity and improving digital literacy. This list will be kept updated and further resources can be suggested via our contact page.

Resources and tools

  • Digital Disruption – This organisation provides chargeable and free resources targeted especially at increasing digital literacy – at how young people use the internet, and critique and challenge information they find on it.
  • Learning Together To Be Safe – Prepared by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now Department for Education), this 2008 toolkit to help schools contribute to the prevention of violent extremism was brought out after the first iteration of the Prevent agenda. Although the policy it refers to has been updated, some of its content may still be of use to schools.
  • My Country My VoteThis project does not seek to tackle issues of extremism directly. However, research has shown that one effective long-term approach to preventing extremism is to engage young people in participatory democracy. This project aims to do just that, and may therefore be a useful model to follow.
  • Prevent Duty Guidance: for England and Wales – Produced by the UK Government, this is the official guidance document.
  • Prevent for SchoolsThis resource was set up following demand from schools in Lancashire, UK. It has been updated to reflect the latest duties (2015), and has links to resources and tools for schools (both primary and secondary).
  • RE-silienceThis project is run by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, and aims to help RE teachers who want to develop their confidence and competence in dealing with contentious issues in the classroom, particularly those linked to violent extremism.
  • RewindThe Rewind project has tackled racism in an area of the West Midlands with a long history of support for far-right views. It has courses available for interested schools. A now-dated review of their services can be found on the Institute for Race Relations website.
  • Safeguarding in SchoolsThis consultancy is run by a former headteacher who specialises in providing courses and resources on safeguarding to school staff and headteachers, including on tackling extremism.
  • Think Project – Running for three years up to March 2015, the Think Project worked with disengaged young white people in Wales. It is unusual in having evaluation built in from the start. The results of this evaluation were discussed in this peer-reviewed article.
  • Victvs – This consultancy provides training and resources for staff as well as parents on understanding the new Prevent duties as well as the risks from extremism and radicalisation.

Academic research is added to the site as it is published and an up-to-date list of research on radicalisation, extremism and schools can be found here.

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