Schools need more support to tackle extremist views

Ian Jamison Cleo Blackman

The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged us all into a new and disruptive reality, and for many, the dominant emotion is fear: fear of contagion, fear for loved ones, fear of economic hardship, fear of unemployment.

Historically, fear caused by chaos and devastation has led to scapegoating of particular groups.

And the same is true here, with Covid-19 being seen as yet another opportunity for fringe groups to exploit a crisis by using disinformation to target certain groups.

Organisations monitoring hate speech online have recorded worrying spikes in posts on social media inciting violence against Jews and Muslims.

Examples include a rising volume of hashtags on Twitter that are antisemitic and anti-Muslim in tone such as #IsraelVirus and #coronajihad, or claims by a Florida pastor that God is spreading the virus in Israeli synagogues as punishment for Jews opposing Jesus.

This is worrying enough. But when you consider that, during lockdown, many young people will have been online a lot more than usual, it is likely that many more of them are being exposed to extremist messaging.

Teacher concerns

Indeed, we recently conducted a series of global dialogues with teachers in more than 20 countries affected by lockdowns who raised this as a major concern.

This is also shared by academics studying the vulnerabilities of young people to radicalisation and is recognised by the UK national coordinator for Prevent, the government's counter-terrorism strategy.

The UN and others have called for technology firms to do more to remove hateful content and urged governments to ensure education systems deliver digital literacy skills to help young people think critically, identify disinformation and build resilience to extremist narratives.

Teachers, too, have a vital role in this, but it is clear they need more help.

During our 10 years working with teachers on our international dialogue programme, Generation Global, we have learned that they often lack the confidence, skills and facts to help them facilitate open dialogue on these subjects with their students.

Teachers in the UK, for example, often tell us that while programmes such as Prevent have helped them understand their statutory duties on reporting, they feel less supported to have difficult dialogue with students on complex issues such as extremism, antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate.

Guidance and support

However, teachers want to help.

They want to be able to proactively engage in discussion on these topics, rather than avoid them, and they want to do so in a way that helps young people think critically and re-examine their own perspectives, rather than re-entrenching attitudes in heated debates fuelled by emotion, not logic.

For example, we have worked with teachers particularly concerned about negative attitudes texpressed by some pupils towards Muslims to find ways to counter this in an informed way.

They have found that using dialogue skills and experiences of direct encounters with Muslim peers from other countries has enabled them to reflect on narratives that they had accepted and take on more open-minded and nonjudgemental approaches.

We have also found drawing on external subject matter experts, combined with skills for facilitating dialogue, helps to give teachers more credible knowledge and greater confidence to address the issues.

Without this knowledge, though, it can be hard to identify where some students might simply be curious as opposed to radicalised.

Training needs

Governments are now beginning to ease lockdowns and contemplate reopening schools. When young people return to school, there will be many who have encountered harmful ideas online.

Some will have rejected them, others will be curious and others will have come to accept them as true.

These ideas swarmed the internet before Covid-19 and have found fertile ground in the current crisis.

Post-Covid-19, extremists will continue to exploit and manipulate circumstances to perpetuate destructive narratives.

Education is a critical tool in the fight against extremism, and education systems provide an ideal avenue to support curious minds to explore global ideas and values, and how they are affected by events such as the coronavirus pandemic.

But this can only succeed if teachers feel able and equipped to help students navigate these arguments.

We need to do more to embed these dialogue skills in teacher training, the curriculum and CPD to help give them the confidence to tackle this vital issue.

This article originally appeared on on 20 May 2020.