Will Baldet MBE, a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and a Regional CVE Coordinator in the UK
In the United Kingdom, the impact of the coronavirus on our schools has been extraordinary, yet, through it all, teachers, teaching assistants, support staff, and head teachers have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep our children active, educated, and safe. We may not know the full psychological impact of COVID-19 on children for many years, and when bubbles, masks, and zoom classrooms become a hazy memory, there will be issues that emerge.
Those in my line of work—preventing the proliferation of extremism and terrorism—have warned throughout the coronavirus pandemic that isolation and reliance on the internet could be increasing the susceptibility of people, especially young people, to conspiratorial, extremist ideologies, while simultaneously removing the protective factors that help us identify those who are affected.
It is no coincidence that our work has become intrinsically aligned to the word “safeguarding“. This is because so many of the principal factors that increase a person’s susceptibility to radicalization can be both identified and resolved within the social care frameworks that local councils have delivered for decades.
This is not to deny the role of ideology. Indeed, some element of ideology or belief is key to radicalization and there’s no shortage of extremists ready to exploit communities or recruit followers, but there are often underlying issues which help make their dogma much more meaningful to a young person trying to make sense of the world.
An ideology can exploit and amplify a person’s grievances and fulfil many of their unmet needs: feeling isolated, marginalized, disenfranchised, disempowered, and voiceless, with no sense of belonging or purpose. In our work we often see that those most susceptible have a fractured or chaotic family life or have been a witness to (and/or victim of) domestic violence. There are also, of course, cases of people who simply want to make sense of an unfair and unjust world and want a narrative that eschews the complexities of life for a more simplistic and binary perspective.
Of course, these factors are not unique to radicalization: they also dominate cases where young people become involved in gangs, county lines, and other criminal deeds. They are present when a child is exploited by adults or a controlling peer, or when someone is suffering from poor mental health or being bullied. It’s why we’ve developed an entire range of interventions to help those who feel lost and are being drawn towards antisocial, criminal, or harmful behaviors. These interventions are a recognition that it’s far healthier to prevent a person crossing those lines than to abandon them and risk their descent into harm that will not be limited to themselves.
It is the consistent presence of these underlying factors in radicalization that has led governments across the world to employ these same safeguarding principles to protect against extremism. It’s not a foolproof system, but it doesn’t profess to be.
The most recent U.K. statistical data is for 2019-20 and identifies a total of 642,980 children and 475,560 adults who were referred for safeguarding concerns in that year (over 1.1 million cases in total), all instances where genuine concerns were raised about a person’s welfare. However, in 262,223 of these cases (about 23.5%), no risks were identified and the cases were closed as “no further action”. While it might be a relief that most of those people were in a far better place than first anticipated, it nonetheless means those initial concerns were likely to be unfounded.
The same happens when we prevent radicalization. There will be occasions when there are, thankfully, no concerns to speak of and no reason to offer any support. No one makes a genuine safeguarding referral out of malice; it is always with the best of intentions and the utmost concern for a child. So, it should be a relief when these concerns turn out to be a false alarm.
No teacher can be an expert on every safeguarding issue: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, domestic violence, child exploitation, gang recruitment, mental health, substance misuse, county lines, self-harming, trafficking, female genital mutilation, and radicalization. They can only ever be expected to understand the broad themes of the behavioral changes that may indicate a susceptibility to harm and then flag their concerns to the local council or police—specialists who do have expertise in these areas—to make an informed decision.
There are ways to mitigate mistaken referrals. It should be possible for a school’s dedicated safeguarding lead to speak to the child sensitively and explore the behaviors or comments that have raised concerns. Depending on the issues, a conversation with the parents might be appropriate and is often a good way to put your concerns on the family’s radar, unless it is felt there would be harmful consequences to parental involvement. If there is still a worry, then the Police’s Act Early website is an excellent resource—or a professional conversation with your local council might be appropriate, a way to sense-check your anxieties with another safeguarding professional and see if you both concur.
If it becomes apparent that something seems unusual and warrants a further look, then a formal Prevent referral—a request for services to be provided to support a child—should be made. U.K. referrals for radicalization are (reassuringly) a tiny microcosm of national safeguarding figures, representing just 6,287 cases out of that figure of 1.1 million. Despite the exaggerated headlines, they are less than 0.6% of the total.
As children return to school from lockdown and self-isolation, we may well see an increase in these numbers. There will be significant changes in some children from the pre-pandemic world to a life where the virus is business as usual. Teachers are taught to spot behavioural changes in children and to consider them in their broader safeguarding responsibilities. Combine those changes with talk of the “Great Replacement” or a “global Caliphate” (phrases that dominate the media reporting of extremism) and it’s not a stretch to wonder if maybe, just maybe, all that time spent online has not been benign.
We must be mindful of the challenges that lie ahead for our children, for our schools and for our teachers. Some mistakes will be made, but we must have faith in the safeguarding systems that triage referrals to ensure those mistakes will be swiftly closed; it’s why those checks and balances exist. But we must above all else have faith in teachers, who look after and educate our loved ones. As we emerge from the largest global crisis since the Second World War, the journey ahead will be difficult, and the threat from terrorism and radicalization has not diminished; it has grown.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.