Teachers on the frontline against terror: what should schools do about radicalisation?

Open debate is essential to prevent radicalisation. Rui Vieira / PA Wire

Schools will have a legal duty to prevent their pupils being drawn into terrorism from July 1, when new counter-terrorism guidelines come into force. In many ways this is nothing new – schools are increasingly being seen as a key battleground against terrorism. But the new guidelines place teachers firmly on the frontline of the war against terror, both as monitors of extreme beliefs as well as challengers of them in the classroom.

Teachers were already required to safeguard their pupils from harm, be it sexual, physical or emotional abuse, and the new guidelines are in some ways an extension of these safeguarding duties. In addition, teachers are now expected to be able to spot radicalisation and also to report children’s interest in extreme ideologies, even where these are legal. These two points are far from simple.

Under the new Prevent guidelines, which have come into force as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, headteachers and school governors are now required to make sure their teachers are trained to spot radicalisation. Universities are also grappling with similar new duties.

As we know from a few tragic cases, some pupils in Britain have decided to join Islamic State. We also know from research that often people leak their plans beforehand – and it is very helpful for teachers to know there are programmes such as Channel through which they can raise concerns.

Teenage schoolgirls Kadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase at Gatwick Airport in February. They are reportedly now in Syria. Metropolitan Police / PA Wire

But as someone who has a job researching radicalisation, I know it is generally extremely difficult to predict when someone is at risk of radicalisation, let alone do that on the back of a small amount of training and with scores of children to attend to. Should teachers look for depressed children, popular children, children interested in politics or religion or children who feel marginalised and discriminated against?

This idea that we can “spot radicalisation” also fails to account for research which points out that not all radicals are terrorists, nor are all terrorists radicalised before they join their groups. The simple fact is that there is no simple model of “radicalisation” with easy-to-spot signs. Suggesting otherwise puts an untenable pressure on teachers to recognise something in its early stages that others have found it almost impossible to identify or predict.

Of course, that’s not to say there are no risks, nor any common-sense steps schools can take. Encouraging pupils to develop critical thinking skills – in how they use the internet, question religious authority, and critique and challenge ideas – is crucial (and I’ve written a free resource listing these kinds of approaches). But this also requires free exchange of ideas and values – and here another problem with the new legal duties arises.

Which extremisms?

The hate preacher Abu Hamza and people like him have long abused the UK commitment to freedom of speech to provide cover for ideas which, while stopping short of being illegal, have nonetheless reinforced a damaging and divisive rhetoric of a war by the West on Islam.

These messages of threat to an imagined global Muslim community contribute to the sense of anxiety that has inspired some people to join violent groups. But one of the benefits of allowing these ideas to be aired legally is that it also allows them to be debated and challenged.

Schools, like universities, are filled with curious, passionate young people, many of whom have a keen interest in major news stories, such as the war in Syria. Asking teachers to report on pupils’ views, even legal ones, may make them cautious of opening up such topics for debate and could lead to pupils feeling they cannot speak freely. The danger is that they will continue these discussions elsewhere, where there may be no critical voices to balance the debate.

Research on education in conflict zones has shown that schools can play a vital role in combating extremist ideas. But in order to do this pupils need to engage across communal boundaries and learn how to challenge ideas. Difficult conversations need to take place and teachers need to feel confident in leading them.

These ideas aren’t totally new to education – think how far educating young people about race and racism has come. We’re certainly not ready to declare a victory in the war on racism but we are much better at having those conversations than we were 30 years ago. In order to achieve these goals we need long-term planning in schools to help build community cohesion and active democratic participation, aims which were stripped out of the government’s Prevent agenda in 2011 and have not been properly supported since.

We need brave schools

This isn’t to say that schools aren’t already thinking intelligently about how they can engage with the new legal duties, and there are a number of projects which have a long history of engaging with schools on such issues. But there can also be an unfair spotlight on schools trying to do the right thing. For example, a primary school in London was recently the focus of a flurry of protest about a letter home offering parents the opportunity to take part in training to spot radicalisation.

Leaving aside the very real concerns about what exactly this training would cover, getting parents involved seems to be an excellent idea. The protest at the London primary focused on the implicit suggestion that four-year-olds might be terrorists in the making. But, given that primary schools also cater for ten and 11-year-olds, surely support and guidance for parents of older children should be welcomed.

If such initiatives help parents as well as schools encourage their children to debate difficult topics confidently and to critique and challenge information, then this seems exactly like what schools should be doing about radicalisation.