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Are Britain’s schools full of ‘little terrors’?

The government’s view of pupils as potential bombers says more about its own incoherence than a rise in extremism.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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The British government is grooming primary and secondary school teachers to become fighters against terrorism. This extreme measure is outlined in a new ‘toolkit’ which can be downloaded from the internet.

In an effort to tackle violence and ‘build a stronger, safer society’, British schools are being positioned on the frontline of the government’s battle to eradicate extremism. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) believes schools can play a key role in getting young people to say ‘no’ to extremism. Its Learning Together to be Safe toolkit, unveiled by schools secretary Ed Balls yesterday, along with £4.68million of funding, is being sent out to schools across the country. Based on the government’s favourite educational interventions of the past few years, it is effectively a manual for turning schools into laboratories for social engineering.

Teachers are advised, among other things, to implement ‘social and emotional aspects of learning’, to promote diversity and ‘active citizenship’, to minimise ‘hate and prejudice-based bullying’, to model ‘freedom of speech through pupil participation, while ensuring protection of vulnerable pupils’, and to ‘enforce safe behaviours in the use of the internet’ (1).

In other words, the government is pushing through policies ranging from the happiness agenda to multiculturalism, from offence-avoidance to internet censorship, on the back of the war against terror. Here, the battle against terrorism is recast as a child protection policy.

This is not the first time that school corridors, youth centres and university student unions have been perceived by the government as treasure troves for dangerous strangers. In 2006, the government published guidance to help universities and colleges ‘tackle violent extremism in the name of Islam’. Last year, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust announced that multi-faith academies would be built in 25 English cities and towns to combat extremism. A few months later, communities secretary Hazel Blears declared that £70million would be spent on training Muslim ‘role models’ to help counter the influence of extremist brainwashing recruiters.

Some university lecturers protested against effectively being asked to spy on their own students. Now, primary and secondary school teachers are being asked to be vigilant against extremist children, and effectively to view their own pupils as potential suicide bombers and racists in the making. The expression ‘he’s a little terror’ takes on a whole new meaning.

The Learning Together to be Safe toolkit focuses on ‘extremism’ rather than terrorism, perhaps so that Muslims won’t feel singled out as particularly vulnerable and dangerous – something politicians are wary of. But the document also conflates ‘violent extremism’, a term which indicates physical acts of aggression, with ‘hate-driven discrimination of all forms’, which could encompass just about anything that might make an individual feel excluded. If discussions and policies around bullying are anything to go by, in schoolyard terms ‘hate-driven discrimination’ will most likely come to mean everything from having your lunch money stolen to being called names. The Sun reports today that X-Factor hopeful Austin Drage was bullied at school for wearing ‘nerdy glasses’; in the future, such childish meanness could become the focus of anti-hate intervention.

It seems this vagueness is deliberate, because the toolkit also encourages limits to free speech, more internet censorship, happiness lessons and feelgood multiculturalist activities. The emphasis seems to be on limiting young people’s access to apparently dangerous ideas and instead providing them with a mish-mash of happiness-tinged, multicultural platitudes. This is a battle of ideas without very many ideas, and not much of a battle.

The toolkit shows that the fight against ‘homegrown extremism’ is not simply about preventing terrorists from planting bombs, but also preventing them from warping minds. It seems our rulers have so little faith in their own ability to shape young people’s thinking and behaviour that they believe their brains are malleable putty for any dangerous sect. Policymakers and cultural commentators are obsessed with the idea of extremists ‘winning over’ children and wielding moral and ideological power over British youth. They believe extremists, in order to ‘get ’em young’, are recruiting and ‘radicalising’ people on university campuses – so now the government is turning to schools in order to get ’em even younger.

The real question is: why is mainstream society failing to inspire young people, to such an extent that nihilistic ideas can come to be seen as a national threat in schools? What is it about contemporary British society that means some young people – small numbers of them – are tempted by misanthropic, extremist thinking? Perhaps the problem is closer to home than the government thinks. In schools themselves, children are either offered a relativistic curriculum that celebrates all ideas and histories as equally valid, or are taught a revisionist view of mankind which places us as the harmer and destroyer of the planet rather than the maker of history. Could it be that this contemporary combination of relativism and anti-humanism nurtures some young people’s interest in nihilistic ideas?

Under what spiked has referred to as ‘the tyranny of relevance’, education is being debased and hollowed out, as instruction and inspiration become subservient to the latest political fads. So students who want to study geography are more likely to be inundated with cautionary tales about global warming. Physical Education lessons are being turned into healthy living classes. History classes are now vehicles for transmitting the values of multiculturalism and the destructiveness of ‘ethnocentricity’. As Frank Furedi has argued, ‘increasingly, the curriculum is regarded as a vehicle for promoting political objectives and for changing the values, attitudes and sensibilities of children’ (2).

If a minority of extremists really are able to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of British kids through cranky ideas spread on a few internet sites and in low budget community centres, then mainstream society should ask itself why it cannot inspire them even when it has the powerful tools of the educational establishment – and a wealth of ideas from throughout human history – to hand.

Today, British schools are nurturing the very anti-elitist and anti-modernist sentiments that run through the ‘extremist movements’ that the government is so concerned about. The dominance of ‘white middle-aged men’, the consumer society, the excesses of modernity – these are pet hates of the establishment and the homegrown extremists alike.

From 9/11 to 7/7, from the 2002 bombings of a Bali nightclub to the attempted attack outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London last year, despicable terrorist assaults are attacking Western symbols of modernity, and the decadent, binge-drinking, slaggish ways of the masses which polite society also frets about on a daily basis. Instead of turning teachers into social engineers and spies, maybe the powers-that-be should look long and hard at the messages they themselves are transmitting, and come up with a curriculum that enthrals and inspires the next generation.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked. She is speaking in the session Immigration: the more the scarier?, and chairing the session Candid camera at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Previously on spiked

Bill Durodié argued that deradicalisation was not the answer. Frank Furedi talked to Brendan O’Neill about his latest book Invitation to Terror. Faisal Devji said Osama bin Laden merely speaks through Western dummies. Dolan Cummings argued that radicalisation is a good thing. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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