More recently the role of schools in countering violent extremism has been brought into the spotlight. The New South Wales Government has announced that it will undertake an audit of all prayer meetings at schools following allegations that a student at a public high school was preaching radical Islam at one such group.
There are also plans to train teachers and educators in how to identify the warning signs of radicalisation among students and suggestions that the curriculum should include teaching of different religions in schools. All of these proposals will eventually lead to schools being expected to play a major role in an intervention framework that seeks to identify radicalise individuals and funnel them through a program designed to disrupt the radicalisation process.
No doubt, schools play pre-eminent role in the socialisation of young people and their moral development; but do they have a role to play in countering violent extremism? What is the nature of this role and, importantly, should we be expecting teachers and educators to now become adept at recognising radicalisation and mandate them to report it?
For some years now, education has been a central component of countering violent extremism in several countries. In complex environments such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, access to education is seen to be an essential condition for stability and peace. Education programs also appear in de-radicalisation strategies in the form of religious re-education. In Western countries such as the UK and Australia, the focus is on the teaching in schools of subjects that promote tolerance, understanding and citizenship.
Compulsory school curricula in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia include citizenship education, civic values and cultural diversity. In fact, current evidence suggests that most efforts to develop education interventions for the prevention of violent extremism in schools tend to focus on promoting tolerance and understanding through citizenship education and the teaching of civic values.
These programs are valuable in their own right, but reflect some of the problems of the broader policy approach to preventing violent extremism that assume that violent extremism can be prevented by developing democratic participation. While the popular assumption is that a lack of opportunity for democratic participation is a root cause of violent extremism, the literature is inconclusive.
This does not discount the role of schools. In fact, schools have a very important role to play in countering violent extremism. Earlier this year, I delivered a training program for teachers and educators from Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan on how to embed countering violent extremism into their practice.
The course focussed on understanding the role of educators, schools and communities in countering violent extremism with practical examples of how teachers could develop resilience to violent extremism through strategies that develop moral reasoning and critical thinking skills and that build young peoples’ cognitive capacity to resist violent extremist messages.
These are by no means new approaches and have been applied to preventive programs targeting other forms of anti-social behaviour. We do not need to re-invent the wheel for violent extremism. Nor do we need to introduce new curriculum frameworks or obligations on teachers and administrators. Like other social issues, violent extremism is best targeted by an approach that focuses on broad-based prevention. It is here that schools can most effectively make an impact in developing the skills and capacities of young people and build their resilience to violent extremism.