Our specialist approach to alerting our pupils to extremism

The emergence of extremist ideologies should be taught within academic disciplines such as history. Only then will pupils understand the root causes and have vital reference points

The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that comes into force on July 1 mandates all schools with a duty to prevent the radicalisation of young people.

Many headteachers are concerned about the current or future spectre of a pupil travelling to Syria or expressing sympathetic views towards groups such as Islamic State (IS), Hezbollah or Hamas.

Yet, how should schools teach the prevent strategy? Should this comprise a set of neatly packaged, prescribed messages in assembly and tutor-led PSHE lessons?

Or is the emergence of extremist ideologies a phenomenon that we should teach within academic disciplines such as history? At the West London Free School (WLFS), we believe the latter is the correct approach.

Two forms of extremism currently pose the greatest risk to pupils: the anti-Western narratives of groups such as IS and al-Qaeda, and the anti-Islamic views of fringe far-right groups across Europe.

An approach that simply alerts pupils to the risks is intellectually moribund

Both try to appeal to young people who have not yet established clear reference points about the historical development of extreme ideas.

An approach that simply alerts pupils to the risks is intellectually moribund: pupils need to understand the root causes of the development of the jihadist phenomenon within the context of world history.

Pupils also need to know how extremist and fundamentalist narratives are a distortion of the past. I want to give them the historical and political reference points they need to see through the distortions offered by extremism.

We have thought carefully about how the content of such an approach might look.

Our first step was to bring in the local prevent strategy officer to raise awareness of the issues with staff and to give a structured and historically framed overview of the varying forms of extremism, from jihadist, to neo-fascist, to Marxist-Leninist.

This was followed by examples of misconceptions and misunderstandings that would indicate a pupil’s susceptibility to radicalisation.

Then Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at LSE, talked to pupils on the historical context of the emergence of al-Qaeda and IS; a lecture that prompted questions and discussion.

In both cases, experts provided staff and pupils with a historically grounded account of the risks posed by radicalisation. Over the next few weeks we plan to develop this knowledge-based approach by running seminars for pupils, led by our history and RE teachers.

These will cover topics such as the rise of extreme nationalism from 1870-1914, the emergence and influence of Bolshevism and Nazism in the 20th century and the growth of anti-Western ideologies.

We shall discuss the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of the Mujahedeen and the development of al-Qaeda in the post-Cold War world, before finally introducing IS in the context of these developments.

These historical accounts are complex and challenging, but we believe it is only by learning about them in an academically rigorous way that pupils can understand why the extremist accounts are distorted.

A high level of expertise is needed to run these sessions – hence we rejected the idea that tutors should deliver them with their forms.

Instead, we have decided to rely on the subject-based expertise of our history and RE teachers: form tutors will be able to continue these discussions with pupils after the specialist input. We shall start with our year 10 pupils (the oldest in the school) and then work down over the next few months so that all pupils have learned about the development of extremism in the 20th and 21st centuries.

We hope our pupils will have acquired a clear knowledge of the emergence of extremist ideologies within the context of wider historical developments.

This will establish clear historical and political reference points in their minds, making them more knowledgeable about the complex world around them and thereby making them less susceptible to extremist messages.

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