Teachers are reporting a rise in extremist views and conspiracy theories among pupils, which they warn will be left to fester unless schools equip them with training and resources to tackle dangerous thinking and ideologies, according to research.
The government’s approach to tackling extremism is too focused on identifying and reporting pupils thought to be at risk of radicalisation, rather than teaching pupils how to reject and discuss hateful views and ideologies, the teachers who were interviewed by researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education said.
They added that the teaching of extremism in UK schools was “highly variable” and sometimes “superficial” and “tokenistic”, with teachers in a “babysitter” role that involved using “pre-prepared scripts”. The current approach is rarely sufficient to tackle the rise in pupils looking at disinformation and hateful content online, they said.
Kamal Hanif, an expert on preventing violent extremism in schools and a trustee of Since 9/11, which commissioned the research, said: “This is a wake-up call for us all. We must make sure that every pupil is taught how to reject extremist beliefs and ideologies.
“We know that right now extremists are trying to lure young people into a world of hatred and violence, both online and in person. We must use the power of education to fight back and help young people stand up and reject extremism and violence. We need far more clarity from government about the need to have time in the curriculum for frank and open discussions about extremism.”
The researchers interviewed 96 teachers in schools in England and found that, although extremist views remain rare, more than half of teachers had heard pupils express far-right views in their classroom, while around three-quarters had heard misogynistic or Islamophobic opinions, and nearly all had heard racist language. Almost 90% had heard conspiracy theories such as American tech tycoon Bill Gates “controlled people via microchips in Covid vaccines”.
Teachers reported worrying about broaching certain sensitive topics out of fear they would “get it ‘wrong’”, especially on race. A fifth of the teachers didn’t feel confident dealing with conspiracy theories and far-right extremism.
The UCL researchers recommended that schools strengthen their anti-discrimination policies; promote opportunities for pupils to openly discuss controversial viewpoints, where these can be challenged; and improve the teaching of critical literacy to help them understand the difference between fact and opinion, and the forces which shape the latter. They stressed that teaching fundamental British values, a cornerstone of the government’s anti-extremism approach, was not a panacea, but rather could be a starting point for useful discussions.
In August, the Guardian revealed a worrying rise in the number of children being radicalised by far-right groups, with 13% of terrorism arrests in the last financial year of youths under 18, compared with 5% the year before. Young people under the age of 24 accounted for nearly 60% of extreme rightwing terror arrests, representing a rapid rise.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, called on the government to work with schools to provide the time, training and resources teachers need to tackle the rise in extremist views.
“The reality is that schools have to juggle multiple demands on their time in the context of packed timetables and severe funding constraints, all at a time when our society has undergone a digital revolution which allows people to spread hateful views at the click of a button,” he said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “As this report shows, schools and teachers are generally confident teaching about issues related to extremism.
“The new Relationships, Sex and Health Education curriculum requires secondary age pupils to be aware of laws relating to terrorism