Opinion: How schools can tackle extremism

It starts here: Schools can be a powerful force in stopping radicalisation and extremism before it's too late.
It starts here: Schools can be a powerful force in stopping radicalisation and extremism before it's too late.

Recent terrorist attacks have renewed discussions about how to stop young Muslims being radicalised.

A lot of the ideas focus on closing down social media sites, reporting "at-risk" individuals or organisations, and educating pupils on the evils of extremism.

But while it's important to be having these types of conversations, most of these suggestions are reactive, in that they are about what to do when the seeds of terrorism have already been planted.

There is no excuse for terrorism, but if there is any chance of stopping it, there has to be understanding of its roots, along with long-term strategies to undermine the causes.

And as most terrorists are "home-grown" – in that they are often born and raised in the country they then go on to attack – what happens in schools may well be critical. Of course, putting things in place in education is not a cure all, but it may help to keep all of us safe and also ensure that communities are not divided.

The following are strategies that can be used by teachers and schools to help to stop those extremist seeds from being sown. 

The first step is to foster an inclusive environment. A sense of belonging is a basic psychological need and the groups to whom we are affiliated shape who we are and who we become. Schools that only value high flyers create "exclusive belonging" where bullying and marginalisation can thrive.

Social exclusion inhibits feelings of belonging, self-esteem, perceptions of control over the environment, and of leading a meaningful existence. It can also lead to powerful, negative, deep-rooted reactions.

Research by The Australian Policy Unit found three shared characteristics of young people who become violent Islamist extremists. They had a sense of injustice or humiliation, had a need for identity and purpose, and a need to belong.

Ultimately, all students need to believe that they matter, their contributions are valued and others care about them. Whether or not this happens will depend on the values and practices that predominate in school culture.

An inclusive sense of belonging goes beyond wearing a school uniform and includes ways in which schools demonstrate respect for the communities they serve. This could include identifying ways of improving communication with families.

Secondly, education is more than gathering facts and passing exams, it is also about learning how to grow into who you are as a person and learning to live together.

It is not only what young people believe about themselves that matters, it is what they come to believe about others. Where schools adopt a proactive approach to social and emotional learning they encourage young people to find out what they have in common, making it more difficult to dehumanise others. Which leads us onto encouraging empathy.

Schools should aim to identify positive values and strengths, and help children to understand the skills that are required to build healthy relationships – including the development of empathy.

When young people are given opportunities to understand more about their emotions, they may come to a better understanding of why they feel what they do, and also find safe ways to express feelings. And they may also begin to appreciate how their emotions may be manipulated by others.

The last thing is to make students’ voices heard. Young people are often idealistic, want to be heard and want to make a difference. And research suggests that young terrorists have a similar motivation.

Schools can provide constructive channels that engage pupils positively with their communities in ways that provide them with a sense of being agents of change. It's about teaching empathy as well as literacy. It's about teaching compassion as well as composition. It's about teaching advocacy as well as algebra.

  • Professor Sue Roffey, School of Education, Western Sydney University