How to Identify Pupils Vulnerable to Radicalisation

UK School-Teachers Interview on Prevent Duty

By Sharmistha Chaudhuri (Kingston University)

In recent times, the Western world is deeply concerned with threats from acts of terrorism. Countries like UK is even more concerned with several reports of young school children being radicalised and joining groups like Islamic State. In a bid to contain radicalisation, the UK Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (HM-Government, 2015) has introduced an obligatory duty called Prevent duty on certain organisations. Following this, local authorities, schools, further and higher education institutes, health sectors, prison services and police are now obligated to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This research investigated how school-teachers in the UK conceptualise radicalisation and approach to identify vulnerable pupils, since this is critical for Prevent duty to succeed. It will present the tension and challenges teachers face with respect to Prevent duty.

Meaning of radicalisation

The word ‘radical’ comes from Latin radix, meaning ‘roots’. In common use, radical is someone who seeks complete change. However, there is no universally accepted definition of ‘radicalisation’. The UK government defines radicalisation as ‘the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism’ (HM Government, 2015, p36). Neumann (2008) observes, coinage of the word ‘radicalisation’ is very recent and emerged only after 9/11.

Present conflict

Prevent faced many criticisms since its onset and its assumptions had been questioned. Qureshi (2017) questioned the validity of the factors on which Prevent is based, namely Extremism Risk Guidance 22+, since they are drawn by observing 120 Muslim terrorists. Also, Prevent emphasises that schools can ‘build resilience to radicalisation by promoting Fundamental British Values’ (HM Government, 2015, p5). The concept of Fundamental British Values (FBV) rest on democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faith and beliefs (DfE, 2012). Richardson (2015) criticises that the notion of FBV is conceptually unclear, and therefore open to different interpretations. Furthermore, the Home Office training program, Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP), has also been criticised by Blackwood (2015) who argues that by inviting scrutiny of young Muslims, it may itself contribute to the very problem it hopes to solve.

The present research

This research investigated how teachers in the UK conceptualise radicalisation and how they approach to identify children vulnerable to it. For this purpose, 14 UK school-teachers (average age 40) were interviewed for about one hour using a semi-structured questionnaire. All participant names appearing in this report are pseudonyms. Table 1 provides participant details.

Table 1: Participant details


An analysis of the interviews revealed four main themes:

Theme-1. Concept of radicalisation is vague

A majority of teachers found the concept of radicalisation abstract and difficult to interpret. This was evident when Rita (Chemistry teacher, Catholic-school) stated, ‘Radicalisation, it is quite a loose word really…I think it is very difficult to recognise something like that’ or when Sucheta (Chemistry teacher, Catholic school) commented, ‘Is this really radical? Is this terrorist activity? Not at all. This is quite a vague term’.

A research by Cinnirella (2011) found that the meaning of radicalisation is intertwined with Islamophobia. However, this was not supported in this study, since most teachers saw radicalisation as necessarily violent, but not necessarily Islamic. For example, Shyama (Maths teacher, Comprehensive) stated, ‘the end result is being violent, or being intolerant to other groups’. Most teachers rather criticised how media associates the meaning of radicalisation with Islam or portrays Westerners as oppressed. To illustrate, Rita (Chemistry teacher, Catholic) stated, ‘It (radicalisation) does not have to be with Islam at all. But obviously that is in the media now’; and similarly, George criticised, ‘The media needs to stop perpetuating lies that White British Christians are all oppressed’. This study found many teachers associating other influences than Islamism with radicalisation, for example, George (English teacher, Comprehensive) said, ‘more relevant radicalisation for our occasion would be young people being radicalised in the direction of right-wing views, racism, xenophobia and lots of these things’. Davies (2017) critiques that Prevent’s whole thrust seems to be about Islamic population: this theme provides evidence that the teachers do not see ‘radicalisation’ as necessarily related to Islam.

Theme-2. A number of factors are associated with radicalisation

Teachers associated both personal as well as socio-political factors contributing towards the process of radicalisation. References to personal factors were rather unsurprising, which includes poverty, parental abuse, family breakdown, domestic violence, mental health issues or drug related problems. Poverty was also seen as a major contributor, for example, Sucheta (Chemistry teacher, Comprehensive school) commented, ‘because they are poor, and they can do for money, well if somebody comes and gives them money [..] it’s possible. I think it is probably the main reason’.

References to socio-political factors took the form of political atrocities of Western countries on the Muslim world. A number of teachers commented, when Muslim countries are seen to be politically suppressed, dominated and overpowered by the Western world, a concept of ‘us’ (Muslims) and ‘them’ (Western-world) arises, leading to hostility and instigating individuals towards radicalisation. A majority of teachers also highlighted the clash between ‘home’ and ‘host’ cultures faced by immigrants seen to pave a path towards radicalisation. Associating radicalisation to such a range of factors is an important finding since it indicates the complex process of implementing Prevent duty.

Theme-3. Prevent’s emphasis on Fundamental British Values challenged

An interesting finding of this study is how most teachers challenged the emphasis of FBV in school. They proposed the value imbibed at school should rather be labelled as Humanitarian or Universal Values. This is because they saw the meaning of FBV unclear or not relevant; as in the words of Amanda (Science teacher, Comprehensive) ‘I don’t know how to distinguish British values, over just humanitarian values’ or Shyama (Maths teacher, Comprehensive) ‘What did you mean by British values? Is it something different?.’ In a similar tone, Caroline (Headteacher, Islamic) explains: ‘The first thing I did, was to look at the United Nation Declaration of Human Rights,[..]we actually call it ‘Universal Rights’ and not British values. So many of the values we consider to be British, are not British in their origin, and are infact universal values’.

Thus, majority of the teachers shared that instead of overemphasising on FBV, a mutually cohesive, multicultural and empathetic environment at school can reduce pupils’ vulnerability towards radicalisation.

Theme 4:Prevent duty Vs ‘Pedagogic duty’

This study found that a majority of teachers show either a sign of tension or reluctance to carry out the Prevent duty, e.g., Sue (Maths teacher, Catholic school) commented, ‘I don’t feel that it is my responsibility and I will be held accountable’. This supports the research by Elwick and Jerome (2019) that teachers are confronted with a set of tensions about their own beliefs, values and roles when the diverse roles of monitoring and surveillance are merged with their principle role to educate. This theme also brings out the tension teachers face in adhering to the Prevent duty.

Study implication

The main assumptions of Prevent duty are based on teachers’ clear understanding of the concept of radicalisation and its associated terms, as well as its successful integration within their teaching. This study highlighted certain problems with regard to these assumptions. To begin with, most of the teachers expressed difficulty in conceptualising radicalisation or pinning it down to a few associated factors. They also found their understanding of ‘radicalisation’ is coloured by how it appears in media. Furthermore, an evidence of tension between teachers’ pedagogical and safeguarding duty has been found. Most of the teachers also challenge the core assumption of Prevent, such as promotion of FBV to counter terrorism. These results indicate Prevent duty might have become too prescriptive and therefore may not be an effective counter-terrorism tool as expected by the UK government. Moving forward, social psychologists may like to investigate how factors like teachers’ ideologies or risk perceptions might affect how Prevent duty is understood and implemented.

About the Author

Sharmistha Chaudhuri is a PhD researcher in Social Psychology at Kingston University, London, under supervision of Prof. Evanthia Lyons and Dr. Emma O’Dwyer. Sharmistha is Interested in Identity politics, Power, Radicalisation in UK schools and immigrant-Identities. She is a Committee Member, British Psychological Society, Wessex branch.


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