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05 Dec 2017

Looking to address extremism? Let young people speak up

Extremism, radicalisation, terrorism & hate crime… Let’s talk about it, let’s open the conversation with young people across the country and let’s make them part of the solution and the change we want to see.

Having spent many years as a secondary school teacher, privileged to work with young people day-in-day-out, I realised very quickly that most of the answers to any of society’s problems were found in the wisdom of young people. So fast forward a few years and here I am about to facilitate a workshop on extremism with 100 14-year-olds & 5 extremism experts… hoping that by opening the conversation with young people we might get an insight into what they think and feel about radicalisation, hate crime and ultimately how to solve it.

Two years ago, I co-founded VotesforSchools to support my friends and peers (other teachers) to be able to host a debate about tricky issues. Having been a form tutor, I had seen first hand the moment something has happened over the weekend in the news and YOU must be the person who can provide all the information, give the advice and know everything there is to know on the subject. Quite a harrowing thought for anyone, especially if it conflicts with your own beliefs or is a subject that makes you want to crawl under a rock and hide! This (combined with seeing first hand how much a child’s behaviour can change the moment they feel empowered) was the moment we combined the 2 concepts – let’s provide content for teachers and a voice for young people. Let’s get them having a meaningful conversation and then try and capture that information and give it to people who make decisions and develop policy.

Debating extremism and asking young people if they can understand why someone might be vulnerable to becoming radicalised was one of our more direct questions. (Most of our topics tend to be less ‘full on’ e.g. ‘Will Blue Planet 2 convince people to use less plastic?’). Through a weekly debate, we are helping young people to become thoughtful, tolerant, open minded and knowledgeable. The students we worked with on the live debate have been doing VotesforSchools for 2 years, so are so well skilled at listening and debating and developing an informed decision.

Bringing the debate to life was easy – I have never come across such an amazing group of people all working alongside the Government’s Prevent agenda who were so keen to come and talk to children about their experiences, what they have learnt and to find out what it is like on the ground for teenagers in the here and now. We set the scene with carousel workshops and a chance for them to see small groups in a more intimate setting before brining everyone together for a Dimbleby-style question time.

This is where the anxiety really kicked in…. were they going to ask any questions?! Not wanting to create a ‘fake’ environment myself and Turing House Deputy Head Martin O’Sullivan decide to go with the flow and fingers crossed they would not be intimidated by the guests or the sheer amount of their peers in the hall! Well lesson number 27 of the day…. Never underestimate teenagers, they couldn’t stop asking questions! The students demonstrated a huge appetite for finding out information and getting to the nitty gritty.

These teenagers’ desire for wanting to discuss, debate and question what is happening in the world they live in was as obvious as the day is long… not talking about controversial issues or engaging them in moral dilemmas isn’t going to make it all go away, in fact quite the opposite. Open debates with all young people will help us all find the solutions to today’s problems, and whilst we may not be able to solve UK-wide extremism with 100 14-year-olds at Turing House School we can help them to understand why it exists, why many people seek belonging in sometimes the wrong way and this in turns builds tolerance and understanding. One year 9 boy captured this when he said during a session… “we are all vulnerable to extremism, and I mean any extreme behaviour like drugs or gangs, not just religious or political extremism” and for a second I realised that their desire to understand the causes and be a part of the solution was just genius.

So… debating extremism, opening up the conversation… was it worth it? Well according to deputy head Martin O’Sullivan, it was, speaking after the event he said, “it was the highlight of my career and in terms of educational outcomes it was gold”.

When we think of Prevent we think of online training for staff and reporting students for language or extreme opinions, now I am not saying this is wrong, not at all, but I think the a large part of the solution lies with teachers who can be equipped with good content to facilitate moral and ethical dilemmas with confidence and without prior knowledge. Then the young people we are so keen to educate holistically can become rehearsed at having a critical eye on the world and can discuss and debate the issues and then be the solution. When you have 1 child in a classroom somewhere in the UK who, after discussing extremism decides not to discriminate against someone who lives down the street – that’s a success in my opinion.

So, here’s the end point summed up by Sophie who at 14 years old offers  “we can and are capable of having a voice and when people in government want to speak to us we can tell them what we know, the different sides of the argument and what we should do about it. Adults can’t tell us how we should think and be, they should find out and work with us, let us be empowered to be the solution” Sophie year 9 student.

Teachers have been doing incredible work with young people and hearing their voices forever. This debate was reported in the Evening Standard .


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