In the weeks after the Paris attacks in November over 150 concerned children called the NSPCC's ChildLine in the UK. Young people clearly want to talk about extremism.
Unfortunately, extremists are increasingly eager to talk to young people, and they have been proving more successful than ever before. An estimated 760 UK citizens have travelled to Syria or Iraq, with up to 50 thought to be under 18. This has included both high profile cases of teenage boys and girls, but also whole families of parents, children, and even infants.
According to figures released last month, in 2015 over 1,300 referrals to the government's Channel intervention programme were from the education sector. Under-18s accounted for 54% of all referrals to the programme. Only around one in five were considered vulnerable to radicalisation and received specialist support, yet this is still far too many.
Intolerance, hatred and extremism can have a devastating impact on not only children, but also families, communities and society as a whole. It is a complex problem, with a quarter of referrals requiring Channel support related to far-right extremism and racism. The terrible murder of Jo Cox and the rise in hate crimes in the weeks surrounding the EU referendum are testament to the threat. The dangers of a resurgence in dissident republican youth should also not be ignored (nor overplayed), with the threat level in Northern Ireland raised to "substantial" only in May.
Depressingly the situation is mirrored in our schools, with an increase in the number of racist incidents reported in recent years accompanying widespread misconceptions around Muslims and immigration among pupils.
Amidst this context the government introduced the new statutory Prevent duty last July, legally obliging schools to safeguard children from "being drawn into terrorism". Too often in the past year this has meant well-meaning but ill-equipped teachers referring potential concerns that later turn out to be misplaced. There must be a mechanism in place for support where there are significant concerns for a child's safety, but only as a last resort.
High-profile but unnecessary referrals obscure the positive, proactive role schools can play in helping young people openly discuss and debate these issues in the classroom and creating an institutional culture of respect, belonging and purpose. We should educate all young people about the true nature of extremism, but more importantly equip them with the skills they need to think critically, for themselves. Teachers must be provided with the training, tools and confidence to do this effectively.
That's why we've launched Extreme Dialogue in the UK, a series of freely available short films and educational resources to get young people, teachers, and parents talking to one another about extremism.
The short films tell the stories of two people profoundly impacted by extremism, a former member of Al-Muhajiroun, and a former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) whose father was killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The films are about real people, raw and unscripted. They do not lecture, they simply tell their own stories in their own words.
We recognise that addressing extremism can be daunting for teachers, so we have produced educational resources around the two stories that help spark conversations and create a safe environment for pupils and staff to feel heard. The resources contain exercises and activities that encourage pupils to engage critically with complex, emotive and controversial issues, and consider the causes, consequences and effects of extremist violence.
Technology has revolutionised the way we communicate and seek information. Unfortunately these tools are also available to extremists, and present an attractive avenue for spreading propaganda and grooming potential recruits. We must equip young people with the digital literacy skills to become more discerning consumers of information. The educational resources therefore challenge commonly-held myths and consider the impact of the media and social media on public discourse.
Extremists exploit the inherent idealism of young people by offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. Consistently poor turnout among young voters is a symptom of our current inability to ignite enough of this passion in a positive way. The Extreme Dialogue resources therefore also explore how young people can help shape the world they want to live in, and challenge the extreme ideas that threaten it.
Extreme Dialogue will not turn people already involved in extremist movements away. Our aim with this project is not just to keep young people safe from harm in the first place, but also provide them with invaluable life skills to prepare them for the future. We also want to ensure teachers have the tools they need to feel confident covering sensitive topics. We therefore hope young people watch, share and think about the Extreme Dialogue films, and urge teachers to get in touch if they would like to find out more about the resources.
Tackling extremism of all kinds is a challenge we must face together. Unfortunately, extremists do not underestimate the importance of education. They use it to indoctrinate and exploit children. They attack schools and universities, and kidnap and murder pupils, teachers and academics because they fear genuine education. If we do not actively confront their abhorrent views they will take advantage of our silence. Young people will make up their own minds. We need to make sure they get the facts.
Henry Tuck is Research & Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Extreme Dialogue has been developed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), the educational charity Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace, film-makers Duckrabbit and the West London Initiative, and is co-funded by the Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme of the European Union.
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