Wednesday, 8 July 2015

RE: Radicalism and Extremism

Image courtesy of 5 Pillars

After the attacks that killed many British holiday makers in Tunisia, David Cameron said that the fight against Islamic State is "the struggle of our generation" (see <here>). Schools are the "frontline" of this "battlefield" and will have a legal duty to prevent their pupils being drawn into terrorism from July 1 2015, when new counter-terrorism guidelines come into force. Sadly a number of school age students have left the UK to join IS forces. There has also been the Trojan Horse inquiry (Park View is apparently to soon change name to try to combat recruitment crisis), on top of the British Values agenda for school leaders; there is seemingly much to be concerned about in our schools.

In an extension of current safeguarding laws, teachers are now being asked to try and spot signs of radicalisation and extremism. They must also report children’s interest in extreme ideologies, even if they are legal. This provides many difficulties and complexities. Many have claimed, quite rightly that they are teachers because they want to "enhance intelligence, not gather it" (See Waqar's thoughtful blog, as a Muslim RE teacher, on this <here>).

Already there is already much confusion. Nicky Morgan MP has suggested, one indicator could be intolerance of homosexuality for example; "Sadly, Isis are extremely intolerant of homosexuality." (see <here>). “Teachers cannot be turned into spies”, claimed NUT leader Christine Blower. This creates significant hype that then needs to be unpicked.

There is likely to be fear among teachers and leaders in schools because it appears this may be another accountability measure for forced academisation, OFSTED or even capability proceedings. Sadly the RE community seems to be pushed to the forefront again with some teachers reporting headteachers are forcing them to teach Islam RIGHT NOW, regardless of any syllabus or year by year planning.

I was fortunate enough to go to a training day held by Havering Borough entitled: Safeguarding Children Online: Radicalism and Extremism hosted by the excellent Penny Patterson and inspirational Sara Khan. The morning full of fascinating input got me thinking about a lot of issues connected to young people and their use of social media.

The explanation of the law change was a clear one. It is not what Morgan, Blower and the press would have us believe. This is simply an extension of our safeguarding and child protection responsibility, reflecting more recent concerns including the threat of IS and other Islamic extremists, as well as the Far Right. One issue is that of the, perhaps poor, Government definition of extremism essentially being "against British Values". Now, many do not object to the values themselves, but they do object to the concept and implementation in schools.

We as teachers need to look out for signs of all types of grooming: withdrawal, changes in behavior, secrecy. Often we do not know what students are being groomed for, nor is it our place to investigate. It may be sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, other physical and emotional abuse, radicalisation, gang membership. Is it possible to say that you will look out for some forms and not others? If you are concerned about anything, you simply alert the responsible safeguarding member of staff, let them make the decisions.

Some examples were given of primary age children telling staff, "We're going on holiday to Syria". This should ring alarm bells for any responsible adult. Did the friends of some of the teenagers who have left to fight for IS really give no clue as to what they were planning? Had their friends known their teachers would have been able and willing to help, would they have informed them? Maybe.

Education and information is vital for all staff. How many would be able to distinguish between conservative or traditional, and extremist Islam? To some, praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan seems pretty extreme! It does not seem unreasonable for teachers to give themselves a suitable grounding in spotting signs of radicalism and extremism in the same way they have a basic knowledge of the danger signs of self harm, drug using. eating disorders and sexual exploitation. We have never been expected to be the experts, but we are the people that spend the most time with our students. We are the people that may spot these things. We are the people that can help young people that have been filled with false hope and romantic naivety.

I urge teachers to not be afraid of this extension to our care. There are ever more dangers to the children in our care while social media continues to allow unparalleled and completely unregulated access to all kinds of individuals and groups. IS is sadly just one of many threats. The Far Right, gangs, those promoting eating disorders or self harm all have a presence, alongside many more in an ever changing landscape.

So what about RE? We're going to sort this problem for everyone some headteachers think. An RE colleague suggested this: 
  1. Support RE in your schools and ensure it has a focus on knowledge of the religious traditions. 
  2. Allow students to approach religion critically and allow it to be challenged. 
  3. Educate students about the reliability of sources and information. 
  4. Don't think RE can do it all.
(Thanks to Daniel Hugill for these)

Safeguarding has never been the responsibility of one department. It is always a whole school issue, with every single adult in a school having their eyes and ears open for our vulnerable children, whatever the danger may be in their lives. I don't see this as spying, it is an act of love.

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