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Updated: Apr 20, 2020

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris in December 2015, there was growing concern about how to counteract radicalisation. In Britain, the focus is on the Government’s PREVENT strategy and how it should be implemented in schools and colleges. I have real concerns that the PREVENT strategy is focusing on the wrong things. The focus is on the symptoms, not the causes of radicalisation. So the PREVENT strategy is being undermined by its own failure to recognise the causes of radicalisation. These are being exacerbated by the failure of the education system to look after the whole child, exemplified by the changes in the assessment system in schools.

The process of disengagement

It is stating the obvious to say that disengagement from society, leads to radicalisation. Children and young people who feel that they have no stake or place in society look for something that will make them feel valued, worthwhile and important. This can be gang culture or a religious or political ideology. For the disengaged, these can provide the sense of direction, not provided by mainstream culture, society and education. But the question is why do these young people feel the need to turn to something outside society’s norms? We know that the internet plays a key role. We know that contact with others who are already radicalised, or in the process of radicalisation encourages young people on the journey to extremism. But these are potentially accessible to all young people, so why do they impact more on some than on others?

The role of exclusion and self-exclusion from school

The answer has be that those susceptible to radicalisation are already disengaged or disengaging from society. So what leads to their disengagement? A key element has to be exclusion from school. Exclusion comes in two forms. The most obvious is when a child is excluded from school. Clearly, this will feel to most children like a rejection, leading them to feel that neither their school, nor wider society wants them. The cycle of exclusion leads parents and children to feel powerless, so in response they search for something or someone who makes them feel valued. It is a small step to radicalisation.

The second form of exclusion is more insidious, as it is harder to identify and understand. It is when pupils exclude themselves from school and disengage from learning. This is not just those who play truant, though this is the most clearly identifiable form of self-exclusion. But absence from school does not fully explain self-exclusion or what leads to it.

What is it that causes some children to exclude themselves from the educational process and distance themselves from school and society? We know that there is no single profile, but there are common vulnerabilities. Some children are struggling to balance family demands and school pressures. They might be young carers who feel that no-one understands their position. They are too busy caring to learn. Others are experiencing domestic and other abuse. They are too concerned with what is going on at home to focus in school. They are in such a state of high alert that they cannot concentrate. For others ill health, either their own or someone else’s, have impacted on their education, attention and attendance to such an extent that they can never catch up on the missing learning. Some are high achievers, fearful that they cannot meet the expectations they and others place on them. Some have special educational needs which have not been properly met, so that they are failing to access learning or understand that they can succeed. Some are struggling with their sense of identity and to understand where they fit in a society that seems to be hostile and indifferent to them. For many other children they have experienced failure, in different forms, in school and so in the wise words of Dylan Williams,

“If you’re not confident, or think that you might actually fail when other people will succeed, you will disengage and basically, you will decide that you would rather be thought lazy, than stupid.”

The role of assessment

What is it that causes children to fear failure to such an extent that they prefer to be thought lazy, than attempt to succeed? To a large degree, it is the culture of continual testing and assessment within our schools. This culture begins in infant schooling. If you do not score sufficiently well on the Year 1 phonics screening, you repeat it in Year 2. The new assessment system without levels means that a child can be labelled ‘beginning’, ‘emerging’ or just plain ‘below’ for year after year. And the fact you are not succeeding in your correct age group will be rubbed in by receiving the labelling for a younger year group. Children will quickly equate ‘beginning Year 2’ when they are in Year 5 or 6 as failure. With levels, progress could be identified and was not tied to a particular age expectation or year group. Now if you are not at least ‘within’, ‘embedded’ or ‘secure’ within your own age expectation, this will be equated with failure. So many will then choose to opt out, not to try and to disengage as a response. This situation will be exacerbated by the government’s plans to make pupils repeat Key Stage 2 tests, maths and English GCSEs, or even whole school years until they reach the required standard.

Alternatives to failure

If you are told by the assessment and school systems that you are a ‘failure’, even when everyone is trying to avoid using that word, it is easier to opt out, than risk repeated failure. For some pupils opting out rather than risking failure, will lead to disruption; disruption within school and disruption beyond the school community. Children will look for something, anything that will get them noticed and give them a sense of value.

A sense of failure and low self-esteem will lead young people to look for those who will give them the sense of self-worth and purpose that they have lost. The PREVENT strategy within schools and colleges is not going to impact on these children, who are already opting out of the education system and the messages it is delivering. They are already involved a search for something to engage in beyond mainstream society. PREVENT aims to stop them being radicalised, but does not consider why they are susceptible to radicalisation or why extremism is so attractive to them.

Many failed by and disengaged from the educational system, will find the answer in an ideology that explains why the ‘failure’ is not their fault. Society is to blame. Some will turn their anger inwards to self-harming and abuse. But others will search for an alternative society and code of behaviour. Extremism in all forms can provide this and give young people a set of values where they can be accepted and their worth is recognised. Exactly what the education system does not provide them with when the emphasis is on attainment, rather than progress.

Treating the symptom, not the cause

For PREVENT to check the progress of radicalisation, we need to look at the underlying causes. What is it that makes extremism attractive? There are both pull and push factors. For a prevent strategy to succeed, it needs to tackle both. At the moment, the focus is on the pull factors. But this will not work, while the government is pushing young people into the arms of extremism by pursuing policies which advance disengagement from education, exemplified by an assessment system which so clearly labels and stigmatises failure. We need to promote an education system where failure is something you learn from, rather than are condemned for. Only with positive support for all learners and an acceptance of different learning styles, rates of progress and interests, can we create an inclusive education system which engages all children and so prevents their disengagement and radicalisation.

‘British Values’ must be demonstrated by those in power, not just inculcated into children. It is no good to have a strategy that just condemns different ideologies, young people need to be able to discuss and debate; to learn to think and evaluate. For young people to accept ‘British Values’, they need to see them lived out in how they and those around them are treated. However, when they feel that British Values are something they are supposed to follow, but are not respected by those promoting them, the promoters are bound to fail. As Dorothy Law Nolte told us in her poem ‘Children Learn What They Live’

If children live with criticism,

They learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility,

They learn to fight.

To break this cycle we need to change the reasons radicalisation and extremism are attractive, not merely condemn them.

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