Countering radicalisation in schools

Many factors contribute to a pupil’s susceptibility to radicalisation, but what exactly should schools be looking out for asks Sally-Ann Griffiths

It’s tempting to think that ISIL exists only in a remote, far-flung place, and online radicalisation of schoolchildren by terrorist organisations only happens in extraordinary circumstances, but the harsh truth is that both assumptions are dangerously complacent. Recently, over 600 UK citizens have journeyed to places like Iraq and Syria: among their number are many school-aged children. 

Whilst widespread internet access has been a fantastic asset to the modern classroom, we must accept that it has also brought some very real risks. These days, if people want something, they search for it online – unfortunately that’s as true of academic resources as it is extremist propaganda. This February, the Government responded to this threat with The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The Act makes it clear that schools have a legal obligation to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. But that’s easier said than done. What exactly should schools be on the look-out out for? 

There are many factors that contribute to a pupil’s susceptibility to radicalisation. For example, it’s not uncommon for school-aged children to suffer from identity crises and grievances that are sometimes spurred by feelings of inadequacy surrounding race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. These feelings can leave children vulnerable to extremist ideologies that are pushed out over the internet by individuals who persuade their vulnerable and impressionable victims of their point of view, by relating it back to the targets’ backgrounds. Children are most vulnerable to this type of grooming over the internet, especially on social media.

 In order to safeguard our young people, teachers need to monitor online behaviour without restricting it. Naturally, a cautious approach is required: a one-off search for ‘Islamic State’ shouldn’t set alarm bells ringing. Many students are interested in important events going on in the news, and monitoring must never become something that hinders honest intellectual enquiry. However, if a staff member suspects a trend of inappropriate online behaviour in a student’s online activity, they’ll need to build up a full picture of that online activity. This will allow them to decide on a case-by-case basis if it is cause-for-concern. 

Monitoring rather than blocking websites is necessary because pupils are increasingly savvy online. They’re using anonymous proxy sites to circumnavigate online blocks and ever changing acronyms and abbreviations in their correspondences. Having worked closely with counter extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation to compile a glossary of extremist terms, it’s clear that teachers can only be part of the solution to the problem if they understand the language their students are using. 

Whilst some terms are quite obvious – i.e. names of major jihadi organisations – others are more cryptic. For example, ‘YODO’ is a jihadist sympathiser phrase meaning ‘You Only Die Once’, and a ‘jihobbyist’, is someone who has displayed extremist sympathies but not yet taken action. By identifying cause-for-concern terms and understanding what they mean, staff can make informed decisions about whether, when and how to act. 

Naturally, schools cannot be expected to shoulder all of the responsibility in the fight against radicalisation. However, they must do everything within their power to counteract malign influences on the internet if they are to guarantee the safety of the pupils under their care. By catching and dealing with inappropriate online behaviour in the early stages, teachers can open up dialogues with children, helping them make informed, educated decisions, thus preventing incidents of manipulation – this is an exercise in safeguarding, not criminalising.

Sally-Ann Griffiths is an e-safety expert at Impero Software.