With such a volatile global and social landscape, violence is becoming an unwelcome aspect of the world in which we live. The introduction of the Prevent duty in July last year led to many headlines questioning the remit of schools and highlighting the anxiety felt by education professionals. I recently read about a nursery who had taken the initiative to teach children about extremism. I felt the sadness, but perhaps not the shock, that the headline was intended to invoke. How can this possibly be an issue for children of such a young age?
However, through my work supporting schools to meet the Prevent duty, I have found that extremism and radicalisation is like many other safeguarding issues. It cuts across all ages, ethnicities, faiths and cultures. Only last week, we were again reminded of how such young children are being drawn into terrorism, as shown by an Islamic State (IS) propaganda video featuring a young British boy thought to be around only 4 or 5 years old calling for the ‘kuffars’ (unbelievers) to be killed.
Children of all ages living in a home environment where there are extremist views or influences are at risk of becoming radicalised. Others may be at risk online where, worryingly, the vast majority of radicalisation occurs. The most vulnerable children and young people are purposefully targeted by extremist groups and organisations.
The DfE Prevent duty guidance (2015) clearly sets out the role of schools. In my experience, I have found that many schools are already doing much of what is expected. However, there still remains a valid level of anxiety amongst professionals attending the training. Most are concerned and fearful of how to talk to children, the response from parents if they do talk to children and the impact of media reports on community cohesion.
It is essential for educational settings to provide a safe environment where children and young people can talk, debate and learn about safeguarding issues, including terrorism and radicalisation. Personal, social and health education (PSHE) can be an effective way of providing time to explore sensitive issues, and equipping children with the knowledge and skills to understand and manage difficult situations. It can also support children in making safer choices, to develop their critical thinking skills and give them the ability to recognise when pressure from others threaten their personal safety and wellbeing.
Opportunities for discussion may arise following reports in the news, as recently experienced following the tragic events in Paris. We should be mindful that children often personalise things and may have fears that we do not anticipate, such as an attack on their own home or the loss of their parents. When talking to children it can be helpful to find out how much they know already so that you can tailor a response that is appropriate to them. Questions should always be answered honestly but should take account of a child’s age and emotional maturity. Trust your professional judgement and most importantly offer reassurance, children of all ages need to feel safe.
Informing parents about activities and discussions that are planned or take place at school, may also provide an opportunity to share welcome advice and support about how they too can manage sensitive conversations. This can also help to reduce any anxieties that parents may have, most will agree that they would prefer their child to discuss these issues in the safe environment of their school rather than their child searching online for answers.
Extremism is most certainly on the rise and it is acknowledged that the largest threat to our country is currently from the so called Islamic State. I know from my discussions with some headteachers that this has created misconceptions and misunderstandings, leading to anti-Islamic views within some of our communities. Some parents of Muslim faith have been deeply upset and worried about how others may perceive them. Equally concerning is the impact on their children and their developing sense of identity.
As well as building resilience to radicalisation, the teaching of fundamental British Values can also support community cohesion. Alongside the promotion of democracy, rule of law and individual liberty, the teaching of different faiths and cultures can ensure children develop mutual respect and tolerance. Children need opportunities to explore and challenge stereotypes and prejudice which grow so easily from hate and fear. To safeguard children and our communities we must ensure that we remain vigilant to threats posed by all extremist groups, including those of the extreme right.
Be vigilant to changes in children’s attitudes, behaviour and peer groups. Children who have experienced trauma or losses may show more intense reactions to tragedies or news of war or terrorist incidents. These children may need extra support and attention.
Children who either seem preoccupied with, or stressed about war, fighting, or terrorism should be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need professional help include ongoing trouble sleeping, persistent upsetting thoughts, fearful images, intense fears about death, and trouble leaving their parents or going to school.
It can be difficult for children to understand and accept terrorism. Children may feel anxious and upset and schools can play a supportive role by listening and responding consistently. Most children are resilient and can get through such difficult times. By creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, schools can help children cope and reduce the possibility of emotional difficulties.
If you have any concerns that a child may be at risk of radicalisation or being drawn into terrorism, contact your local Channel Project with your concerns and use the vulnerability assessment framework to inform your referral.
The use of social media for online radicalisation DfE and Home Office, July 2015
New safeguarding advice for schools and childcare providers DfE, July 2015
Preventing extremism in schools and children’s services DfE, updated 23 December 2015.