Preventing Radicalisation: Let’s not clutch at straws.

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This article by Julian Baggini asks important questions. Is radicalisation brainwashing?

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

Click to access DFE-RR119.pdf





  1. Timely and sensible. Will be interesting to see if there are any responses which indicate any other areas or aspects to consider? For example in the example of knife crime I think schools will have been able to identify potential groups and deal with them to an extent – might the same apply here or maybe not? It’s a good piece Tom


  2. Really thoughtful and thought-provoking article. It does seem that these young people are searching for something – whatever it is, we, society, are failing to meet that need. It is so important that we have dialogue – communication, as always, is key.


  3. Thank you. We need to talk about this more.

    Much of the response around radicalisation (contestable, problematic term, but the one we’re using, so fair enough) is very passive, as though tutors and pastoral systems in school are just watchdogs. The impression the media gives of a school’s responsibility is that teachers should be looking for ‘the signs’ of radicalisation and then promptly hoisting the pupils up the safeguarding chain of command. And of course we should, but the teachers of the ISIS runaways were not negligent. The safeguarding in their school is, by the accounts of the government, Ofsted, and anecdotally from teachers I know who work in the same area as the school, excellent – it’s rooted in strong ties to the community, resourced well and enacted sympathetically by staff who understand the challenges and problems and the myriad approaches available to them in their toolkits. It didn’t help (although of course we don’t know how many other children it *did* help, and we should evaluate an approach by its successes AND failures, not just its failures.) Teachers need to know what to look for and, more straightforwardly, what to do with that information. But the limits of what teachers can understand can be frustrating, and make following these simple steps ‘on the ground’ incredibly difficult.

    The question, as Tom correctly identifies, is one we barely understand; our conventional narrative of radicalisation is constantly being challenged. I was in a recent meeting where stakeholders discussed the local mosques in our area that children attended. The mosque and the school are partners in the community; there was no suggestion that children who attended were at risk based on this factor. Someone suggested that we should look out for young people suddenly changing their mosque, or joining more subversive religious communities that might or might not exist around London (no one could really say with any degree of clarity, or suggest how we actually do so) . And yet, this particular brand of radicalisation seems to share more in common with online exploitation than with the hoary stereotype of firebrand preachers inculcating their flocks.

    That these children were clearly groomed online and not radicalised through their off-line religious community is now apparent. Further complicating the issue, the grooming doesn’t seem to follow the pattern of sexual predation. While the children were isolated from their parents and community, they still all remained friends and followed one another down this path. In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine them supplanting one identity with another, mistakenly believing they were friends exploring new ideas together, rather than being led down a blind alley. But we don’t have the luxury of retrospect; how easy would it have been to see this coming in advance? The child who becomes isolated or whose behaviour changes is a red-flag for their teacher. The child who remains contented and with a consistent circle of high-achieving friends is, dare I say it, not.

    What can PSHE and RE do? Recognise the limitations of being reactive and take the opposite approach. Lessons that discuss radicalisation, empathy exercises exploring the reactions of loved ones when children take leave of their families, online safety. Engaging with the actual theology of these religions, rather than just the ‘values’. Recognising that the life of a religious youngster may have been riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies since the day they first entered nursery (recently my school had great success with an anti-homophobia campaign; one that must be sustained in order to succeed. Sad though it makes me to say, this campaign will for many of them have been completely undermined when they left the school premises and returned home. Which messaging are they to follow? When two dissonant messages are constantly in conflict, it’s no surprise that extremist grooming is waiting to exploit that tension.)

    But practically, we also have to teach a rigorous vocabulary that allows young people to actually understand what is being posted on every headline in the country. Lots of my students have read about ‘the girls who went to be in ISIS’ but push them harder, and it’s obvious that the terminology that peppers those same articles – Islamisation, radicalisation, extremism – are Ancient Greek to them. They neither know what those words mean, nor how the words can be connotatively different in the context of the mainstream press’s narrative.

    And of course there is a trap to avoid here. Endless talk of British Values can be counter-productive. Children fall victim to predators in part because the predator can feign a greater degree of empathy with them than their actual community. If children come to believe that the well-meaning slides promoting diversity and tolerance suggest a set of British Values that are not elastic enough to incorporate a growing religious identity – even one that might be distasteful to some – then other forces will step in to exploit that space.

    So what am I saying? That we have to celebrate a vast breadth of moderate to conservative Islam, challenge expressions at the extreme end, promote and enshrine liberal social values, recognise that many religious young people are at a stage in their life where they will want to challenge and test that very liberal orthodoxy, while still suggesting understanding of the plastic identities of them as young people, and manage all of this in a way that’s inscrutably consistent and takes account of the fact that we have a responsibility as adults to to monitor online-spaces and religious communities of which we are not a part.

    I don’t know how well I’m doing this. The challenge literally keeps me awake at night, and we need to talk about it more.


  4. This is a very timely, thoughtful and sensitively written post. I agree with all you’ve said. A knee jerk let’s blame the school reaction is the last thing we need. We, and in that I include everyone, need to understand, examine and engage with all the issues before we can start to draw any conclusions. We need to be able to work out how to identify at risk individuals without alienating everyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Tom

    I’m an MA Journalism student at London Metropolitan University and am currently writing a piece about government policies to tackle radicalisation in schools. I wonder if you might answer a few (very brief) written questions about safeguarding responsibilities and the ways in which schools can monitor pupils who are vulnerable to radicalisation or grooming.

    If you could let me know your email address I will forward you some more information?

    Many thanks



  6. I agree with aspects of what you write – the need to avoid stereotyping, discussion, links with the community, incorporating into the curriculum a diversity that reflects the reality of out world. However, there are other aspects that I don’t agree with. Allowing twitter and facebook in school would only have allowed them even more access to those grooming them and that is an issue in terms of safeguarding. It doesn’t matter if they are teenagers, they are still entitled to the same protection as younger children on these matters.

    I also think that the free access that many have to the internet at home needs to be something parents themselves are educated in as ultimately they control whether the child has a device, what protections there are and the level of access. It may not be popular and yes those pupils may still come across those websites but there is something still to be said for making it harder to do so.

    As for the anonymous poster – completely disagree on the idea of British Values and I say that as a member of an ethnic minority. I think its due to the fact that my schools listened to all parents, and especially moderate parents, that they were able to build a school consensus with mutual respect, sense of duty to each other and respect for the cultures in the schools. It’s not a one way streak – that has not worked. If they had incorporated more conservative values into the equation it would have diminished not enhanced my life chances so I am sceptical as this seems an apologists position.


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