Extremism and radicalisation – some thoughts from our Subject Specialist, Nick Boddington

Over the past few months we have been increasingly asked for support with teaching about extremism and radicalisation by a range of schools serving a range of different communities. Teachers in all parts of the country, serving both single-sex and mixed-sex schools and pupils of different ages, are seeking help on these issues, and I hope this blog will provide a few thoughts from a PSHE education perspective which might help. Given the complexity of the issues involved, we plan to provide more detailed guidance on this issue, so if you have any thoughts about the content of this blog, please do feed back to the Association.   

There is no question about the need for a criminal justice response to criminal behaviour relating to extremism and radicalisation. Yet as PSHE practitioners, our focus will be on preventative, universal education and in this case, preventing vulnerable young people from being radicalised and helping all young people understand more about this worrying part of modern life. This will be the focus of this blog.

Addressing extremism and radicalisation in PSHE education

As young people many of us looked for meaning in our lives – I know I did. Yet in our connected world of 2015, the internet can be used by those who prey on young people searching for meaning in their lives and who may also be isolated, confused, angry or vulnerable in some other way. Our educational responses must speak to young people who are in such circumstances.

I recall early models of drug education which focused on teaching pupils to ‘just say no.’ This kind of ‘resistance education’, as it was called, was shown to be ineffective because it didn’t look at why young people were drawn towards drug-taking. We can apply learning from that experience in this context: if we truly want to address radicalisation, we need to seek to understand why it happens and why people are vulnerable to being drawn to extremist ideologies before challenging those ideologies.

Teaching about extremism and radicalisation – starting points

So if we don’t simply teach ‘just say no’, where do we start? I offer the thoughts below only to support a conversation in your school. As with any issue we need a ‘whole school approach’ and any provision should be planned in consultation with senior colleagues and the school safeguarding lead, in case concerns about individual pupils are raised. My focus in this piece is on PSHE education lessons specifically and with that in mind, I would start with the following question.

Question 1: What is the broad ‘protective learning’ that underpins our efforts to prevent extremism and radicalisation?

This learning may never specifically refer to ‘radicalisation’, but might cover the following:

  • clarifying values and beliefs, developing an individual identity and respecting the freedom of others to express their identity
  • developing empathy
  • risk identification, evaluation and management
  • developing critical thinking
  • assessing and evaluating arguments; understanding and challenging concepts such as ‘certainty’
  • the ability to separate fact from opinion
  • understanding influence, persuasion, manipulation and the emotional power of charisma (especially being able to understand the difference between a persuasive argument and a rational argument)
  • understanding the difference between ‘charismatic’ and ‘knowledgeable’, including the knowledge that the number of people who are convinced something is true is often unrelated to it actually being true; and the linked concept of ‘group think’.

Many of these issues are addressed in our resources on the genocide at Srebrenica, details of which are in the references section below.

This protective education is crucially important for all young people, helping to protect them from a range of risks, and lies at the heart of a good PSHE education programme.

With this crucial underpinning in place, we can then ask our second question:

Question 2: What is the specific learning we should provide about radicalisation? 

I believe all young people should learn about extremism and radicalisation whether or not they are themselves vulnerable. After all, they are all affected directly and indirectly by the threat of extremism and radicalisation and the responses which Government and others have to it (debates about trade-off between security and privacy, or the impacts of terrorist acts on ways of life and on communities, for example). Extremism is a deeply troubling part of modern life and all young people should have the opportunity to explore why it occurs.

This learning can also be tailored to have a specific protective impact for the vulnerable and for friends of the vulnerable:

  • teaching young people how to recognise and protect themselves from radicalisation (this may not be dissimilar to learning about other types of grooming in relation to, for example, criminality in gangs or sexual exploitation, looking at the motivations of those who are trying to radicalise young people and the myths, misinformation and manipulative techniques they might use)
  • teaching young people how to protect or support peers who they believe are at risk (this is not particularly different from how we support any ‘at risk’ friend – for example exploring issues such as recognising when our peers are generally vulnerable; when to keep and when to break a confidence; how to support friends to get help or how to get help for them).

This learning, underpinned by teaching approaches applicable to other elements of PSHE education, can take place in a plenary context but may lead to disclosures by pupils who are vulnerable or about whom safeguarding concerns arise as a result of PSHE lessons. The school’s safeguarding policy should of course be followed in those circumstances. We provide links to statutory guidance for schools on safeguarding at the end of this piece, along with details of how Ofsted inspects safeguarding as well as Department for Education guidance on the Prevent Strategy, which provides details on how to deal with concerns relating to extremism and radicalisation.

Concluding thoughts

Tempting as it is to believe that a series of lessons will provide a ‘solution’, I believe that to offer the greatest protection for young people lessons on extremism and radicalisation should be taught within the context of a PSHE education programme. This should provide the broader protective learning pupils need, supported by the wider curriculum and set within a positive school culture supported by families and communities. Such learning can in my view reduce young people’s vulnerability to being radicalised and provide opportunities for the myths and misinformation used to radicalise young people to be raised and constructively challenged in a safe setting.

As with many issues covered in PSHE education, we might wish that pupils did not have to face them, especially during their childhood; but we know that education helps reduce their anxieties and helps to keep them safe. Teaching such lessons isn’t easy, but if we remind ourselves of the seriousness of the issues we are exploring, there is no question of the imperative to act.

Nick Boddington, PSHE Association Subject Specialist


Useful references

Under section 26 of the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, schools are subject to the duty ‘to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Being drawn into terrorism includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit’. See: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/6/section/26/enacted

Government prevent strategy: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf

Protecting children from radicalisation: the prevent duty – Departmental advice for schools and childcare providers on preventing children and young people from being drawn into terrorism, July 2015: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/protecting-children-from-radicalisation-the-prevent-duty

Keeping children safe in education: for schools and colleagues – statutory guidance for schools and colleges on safeguarding pupils: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/keeping-children-safe-in-education--2

Inspecting safeguarding: guidance for Ofsted inspectors to use when inspecting safeguarding under the common inspection framework: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inspecting-safeguarding-in-early-years-education-and-skills-from-september-2015

DfE – RR119 (May 2011) ‘Teaching Approaches that build resilience to extremism among young people’ Bonnell et al, OPM and NFER: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182675/DFE-RR119.pdf

The PSHE Association in partnership with the Remembering Srebrenica charity have produced teaching material about genocide which may be helpful for teachers because of its focus on critical thinking, separation of fact from opinion and resisting group-think and manipulation by charismatic individuals: www.pshe-association.org.uk/curriculum-and-resources/resources/rememberi...

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