Teachers in England who feel overwhelmed by pandemic catch-up and curriculum demands fear they will miss signs of far-right radicalization in classrooms and lack training to effectively challenge extremist views among pupils.
Swastikas scribbled on a chemistry book, white power slogans daubed on exam papers, students quoting videos of far-right activist Tommy Robinson and hate speech against refugees are just a few of the most obvious signs of the influence of the extreme right on school children. , as reported by teachers and other staff.
They are also beginning to hear language associated with “incels” – a subculture of men who describe themselves as involuntarily celibate, with ties to the “alt right” in the United States – whose misogynistic views are seen as extremist.
But Owen Jones, director of education and training at anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, said many teachers felt ill-equipped to deal with the problem of right-wing radicalization in classrooms. “Language [of the far right] and what they talk about has evolved so much. Students can use it in front of a teacher and they would have no idea what they are talking about,” he said.
Research by the Institute of Education at University College London found that racism, misogyny and homophobia are widespread in schools in England. Although some students actively seek out far-right material online, others unwittingly discover it while researching for homework or are prepped through online gaming platforms.
“Young men are always young men,” said a Greater Manchester headteacher when asked about signs of far-right influence at the schools where he worked. He made a referral under the government’s radicalization prevention program – a 15-year-old whose behavior immediately raised alarm bells.
“The child had provided us with a level of detail that made it very likely that he had witnessed a far-right march and was very determined to continue that way of thinking. He was watching far-right material on YouTube,” the director said.
“He came out in a RE [religious education] lesson. The concerned young man ticked all the boxes in terms of vulnerabilities. He wasn’t particularly successful, he didn’t come from a very stable background, and he carried with him some of the attitudes that align with the risk of radicalization by the far right. He had unsavory attitudes towards women and he found it hard to question that.
Another principal, working at a remote coastal school serving a predominantly white, disadvantaged community, said: ‘The kind of thing we encounter is a very strong sense of us and them. The idea that if you are not white, your voice and your presence are not welcome.
“There’s a lot of low-level ‘joking’ out there, some of it quite insidious, a lot of it coming from back home. There’s also a real undercurrent of misogyny here – some of the language we’re hearing is quite worrying. , from the incel movement, which is linked to the extreme right.
A student was heard using the word “Chad”, referring to the sexually active alpha males that are resented by incels. “If you are aware of this type of group at the high school level, they access disturbing content,” the director said.
The pandemic, lockdown and distance learning have made children more vulnerable to far-right grooming, mostly online but sometimes through parents. “Where you have kids who have been online for 18 months, their homes are an echo chamber,” the director said.
“We are fighting against really ingrained attitudes and values that have no place in a 21st century school. Many of our children had no challenges. They just explored stuff at home.
At the headteacher’s two previous schools, a small number of children aged 15 to 16 were referred to the government’s Channel program for specialist support as they were deemed to be at risk of radicalisation. In one case, a child was obsessed with Nazi Germany and doodled swastikas.
Teachers face a difficult task in trying to decide whether students are at risk of radicalization and require external intervention, or can be addressed at school through informed and critical discussion.
In another case, a student was drawing symbols related to Combat 18, a neo-Nazi group founded in the early 1990s as a militant wing of the British National Party (BNP). “They knew what it meant,” the manager said. “One of the family members was part of the far-right movement.
In an earlier case, the school sounded the alarm after a student accessed documents about the Islamic State in Syria. “It was taken really, really seriously, much more seriously than the far right was,” the manager said, adding, “By the time you’ve made a recommendation, it’s too late. He has to there needs to be a lot more education in teacher training to spot very specific signs – attitudes that might belie something.
A modern foreign language teacher working at a predominantly white school in the North East of England echoed those concerns. “I worry about these young boys. They are vulnerable. They are easily influenced. It’s the vulnerable people you have to help, they’re drawn into these things and the teachers have to know how to help,” the teacher said.
“The far-right language changes all the time. I know there are terms we need to learn and I know some teachers don’t always feel confident. I think we need more help, especially on things like language and how to be empowered to challenge it, to make sure our students are really savvy, especially on the internet.
Organizations such as Hope Not Hate are working to fill the void, sending expert educators into schools to run workshops for students and training sessions for teachers on the threat of far-right extremism in young people.
Other school workers, including catering staff and caretakers, are also undergoing training. Jemma Levene, assistant director of Hope Not Hate, said: “A lot of times they hear things and see things that teachers don’t see. Students will have an informal conversation with them in a way they wouldn’t with a teacher.
Levene said the organization has never been busier. “For the first time in May, we taught 5,000 students in one month. We certainly saw a lot of radicalization online during lockdown, simply because it was the only thing students had – technology – and they had access to it 24/7 with no other distractions. .
“As soon as you have a smartphone, you have a window on a world. As soon as you start exploring you have access, and obviously the way the algorithms are set up, once you access a piece of content, it suggests more of the same, or more extreme.
Hope Not Hate has also set up a “de-radicalisation unit” to support vulnerable people before they drift further into right-wing extremism and violence. He has hired a dedicated social worker, supported by a consultant psychologist, who will make further referrals if needed.
The issue of far-right extremism was raised by the NASUWT in April at the teachers’ union’s annual conference, which heard that children were accidentally coming across far-right material online while performing research for school projects. On the Holocaust, students may be as likely to find articles written by Holocaust deniers as true historical accounts, it has been said.
Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said, “More needs to be done to examine and address the problem of extremism in schools and colleges. Concerted action at government level is urgently needed to help schools tackle the problem.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: ‘We want schools and teachers to feel confident [on] issues related to extremism, and our guidance and resources provide them with the best tools to do so.
“The new Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum requires high school students to be aware of laws relating to the protection of issues such as extremism and hate crimes, and the website Educate Against Hate offers over 150 free resources to help teachers and parents tackle radicalization in all its forms, including harmful online content.