This is a short reflection on the growing imperative for schools to ‘do something’ about the radicalisation of young Muslim teenagers. The recent case of three girls from Bethnal Green Academy leaving home in order to join IS has brought the issue onto the agenda for schools once again. I found it painful to see the Headteacher forced onto the defensive in the media, making the case that the school didn’t allow access to Facebook and Twitter – as if that showed that they’d taken sensible enough precautions and, therefore, absolved them of responsibility. For all we know, maximum access to Twitter and Facebook might be a better way to prevent radicalisation – but the Head was under unacceptably intense pressure to defend his school.
The truth is that this is complex and we barely understand it. It would be a massive mistake to leap to some kind of general pattern; each case where young people have engaged in terrorist activities in this way has a back-story and, whilst there may be common elements, we’re a long way from understanding the role of schools. If a family has no idea that their daughter or son is about to flee the country or strap on a suicide-bomb, how likely is it that schools will be more on the pulse? If an intelligent young girl with a bright academic future is prepared to risk everything to join an army of extremists – who knows what might have interrupted that process to change her mind?
It seems to be me that we need to be very cautious here; we need measured responses that take a wide community view of the issues. With something like knife crime, it has taken massive efforts from schools, community groups, the police and social services to work together to change attitudes, pick up potential offenders and make communities safer. It works when there is collaboration and a sense of a shared responsibility. It a child carries a knife at the weekend; it doesn’t mean the school has failed in its duty. It’s more complicated. Soul-searching is required – but the conclusions are often simply to talk more, keep the issue alive and not imagine we’ve cracked it.
With anything we do, there’s a risk that it might be having the opposite effect to the one we desire. At the same time, doing nothing, sitting on our hands, doesn’t seem acceptable either. So – what to do? It seems to me that these things sound sensible:
- To teach RE – or Philosophy and Ethics – and, through the curriculum, discuss religious radicalisation openly
- To promote global citizenship explicitly – the idea that all people interconnected with mutual responsibility for each other
- To promote secularism within which faith groups are given space to express their identity, without any one group dominating.
- To celebrate diversity as a key element of British culture, going beyond tolerance to acceptance and inclusion across a range of issues – feeding into the curriculum, assemblies, and community events.
- Personally, I’d also advocate a liberal line on internet access. It doesn’t seem likely to me that limiting access could have any impact on preventing radicalisation.
- Above all, simply to focus on delivering the highest possible educational standards, rich in cultural capital from a global perspective.
The truth is, that none of these things might be the right answer. At least not in any given case. We just don’t know. So, when a school loses one of its own to an extremist group, let’s be sympathetic and very careful before we suggest that anything they did was right or wrong or a critical factor.
We’ve got to engage with the issues but the stakes are too high for clutching at straws.
UPDATE: With thanks to Dr John L Taylor, here is a DFE guide based on a research study: Teaching approaches that help to build resilience to extremism among young people