A resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Racist, homophobic and misogynist discourses securing establishment voices across the world. At home, hateful speech in our stadiums and a recent shooting by a perpetrator with links to online ‘incel’ groups. This, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, is clearly a time to reflect on our role in challenging extremist ideologies.
But can schools do it? And if so, how? What are the challenges, and how can they be overcome? The Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research at UCL Institute of Education was commissioned by the education charity SINCE 9/11 to carry out research into these questions.
In particular, we set out to explore the role schools can play in enabling young people to resist joining extremist or violent groups, and the ideas they perpetrate. We were also interested to find out what classroom resources and support teachers need in order to address extremism. To this end, we carried out a literature review, a survey of teachers in schools in England and interviews with teachers in five schools, as well as with a Prevent education officer.
On a positive note, teachers reported that it was exceptionally rare for students to be radicalised or to engage with extremist or violent movements. However, extreme views were worryingly common. The overwhelming majority of survey respondents had heard students express extreme views at school: 95 per cent had heard racist remarks, 90 per cent had heard conspiracy theories or homophobic remarks and three-quarters had heard Islamophobic comments or extremist views on women.
These are shocking findings, with immediate and significant implications for how safe our schools feel to young people. So what can schools do about it?
The teachers we spoke with were emphatic that an important strategy is for students to be able to discuss controversial views with each other in a safe and constructive way at school. As one head of PSHE told us, “the heart of it is … make sure they’re having conversations”. He described a lesson where a group of students expressed homophobic views. He asked them how they felt about racism (they were strongly opposed to it) and shared a poem about human rights. Arguments and heated discussion ensued, but some students came back later that day to tell him that it had changed their minds.
Facilitating discussions such as these, which enable young people to critique the views they encounter through social and traditional media, from politicians and from peers, requires a high level of skill and knowledge on the part of teachers. It requires clear boundaries, an understanding of the limits of free speech, knowledge of the subject matter and of critical literacy skills, and expert professional judgement in the moment.
This would be a big ask even if these conversations only came up in English or humanities lessons where they are part of the curriculum. But of course that’s not the case. And even citizenship and PSHE, where they might also be expected to arise, are often taught by non-specialists in bolt-ons to tutor programmes. Simply put, too many teachers lack the relevant training and experience for the role.
On a positive note, we did find that there are lots of good resources for teachers to use. But without the relevant pedagogical expertise, such lessons can end up being more about “delivery of content as opposed to exploring the opinions or thoughts or views of students,” as one English teacher told us.
So, 20 years on, there is only one conclusion to be drawn from our research: all teachers should have access to professional development to support them in addressing controversial and sensitive issues. The skills and knowledge are there, in third-sector organisations and among expert teachers, but they are too thinly spread.
Our research shows that extremist views can be diminished, and that teachers facilitating discussions have a central role in achieving that goal. But it takes the kind of pedagogical expertise that only comes from ongoing professional development, experience, and a culture that makes it clear that addressing extremism is not only a priority, but everybody’s business.