Teachers in England who feel overstretched by pandemic catchup and curriculum demands fear they are missing signs of far-right radicalisation in classrooms, and lack the training to effectively challenge extremist views among pupils.
Swastikas doodled on a chemistry book, white-power slogans daubed on exam papers, pupils quoting from videos by the far-right activist Tommy Robinson and hate speech against refugees are a few of the more obvious signs of the influence of the far right on schoolchildren, as reported by teachers and other staff.
They are also starting to hear language associated with “incels” – a subculture of men who describe themselves as involuntarily celibate, with links to the “alt right” in the US – whose misogynistic views are considered to be extremist.
But Owen Jones, the director of education and training at the anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, said many teachers felt ill-equipped to deal with the issue of rightwing radicalisation in classrooms. “The language [of the far right] and what they talk about has moved on so much. Pupils can use it in front of a teacher and they would not have a clue what they what they are talking about,” he said.
Research by University College London’s Institute of Education found racism, misogyny and homophobia are widespread in schools in England. Although some pupils are actively seeking out far-right material online, others are either unwittingly stumbling across it while doing research for homework or are groomed through online gaming platforms.
“Young men, it’s always young men,” said one headteacher in Greater Manchester when asked about signs of far-right influence in schools where he has worked. He has made one referral under the government’s Prevent anti-radicalisation programme – a 15-year-old whose behaviour immediately rang alarm bells.
“The child had provided us with a level of detail which made it very likely they had attended a far-right march and they were very determined to pursue that way of thinking. He was viewing far-right material on YouTube,” the headteacher said.
“It came out in an RE [religious education] lesson. The young man concerned ticked all the boxes in terms of vulnerabilities. He was not a particularly high achiever, he did not come from a very stable background and he carried with him some of the attitudes that are aligned with being at risk of radicalisation by the far right. He had unsavoury attitudes about women and he found it hard to have that challenged.”
Another headteacher, working in a remote coastal school serving a mainly white, disadvantaged community, said: “The kind of thing we are coming across is a really strong sense of us and them. The idea that if you are not white, your voice and presence are not as welcome.
“There’s a lot of low-level ‘banter’, some of it is quite insidious, a lot of it’s coming from home. There’s also a real undercurrent of misogyny here – some of the language we are hearing is quite worrying, from the incel movement, which is linked to the far right.”
One pupil was heard using the word “Chad”, referring to sexually active alpha males who are resented by incels. “If you’ve got awareness of that kind of group at secondary school level, they are accessing content that’s worrying,” the headteacher said.
The pandemic, lockdown and remote learning has made children more vulnerable to far-right grooming, mainly online, though sometimes through relatives. “Where you’ve got children who’ve been online for 18 months, their homes are an echo chamber,” the headteacher said.
“We are fighting against some really quite entrenched attitudes and values that don’t belong in a 21st-century school. A lot of our kids, they’ve had no challenge. They’ve just been exploring stuff at home.”
In the headteacher’s previous two schools, a small number of children aged 15 to 16 were referred to the government’s Channel programme for specialist support because they were deemed to be at risk of radicalisation. In one case, a child had an obsession with Nazi Germany and was doodling swastikas.
Teachers face a difficult task trying to decide whether pupils are at risk of radicalisation and require external intervention, or can be dealt with in school through informed, critical discussion.
In another case, a student was drawing symbols linked 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 headteacher said. “One of the family members was part of the far-right movement.
In an earlier case, the school raised the alarm after a student accessed material about Islamic State in Syria. “That was taken really, really seriously, a lot more seriously than the far right was,” the headteacher said, adding: “By the time you’ve made a referral, it’s too late. There needs to be a lot more education in teacher training around spotting very specific signs – attitudes that might belie something.”
A modern foreign languages teacher working in a predominantly white school in north-east England echoed those concerns. “I worry about these young boys. They are vulnerable. They are easily influenced. It’s the vulnerable ones you need to help, they are being dragged into these things and teachers need 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 with it, particularly on things like the language and how to be empowered in challenging that, to ensure our students are really savvy, particularly on the internet.”
Organisations such as Hope Not Hate are working to fill the gap, sending expert educators into schools to run workshops for pupils and training sessions for teachers about the threat of far-right extremism among young people.
Other school workers, including catering staff and caretakers, also undergo training. Jemma Levene, the deputy director of Hope Not Hate, said: “Often they hear things and see things which teachers don’t. Students will have an informal chat with them in a way they wouldn’t with a teacher.”
Levene said the organisation had never been busier. “For the first time in May, we taught 5,000 students in a month. We definitely saw a lot of online radicalisation during lockdown, just because that was the only thing that students had – technology – and they had access to it 24/7, without other distractions.
“As soon as you have a smartphone, you have a window on a world. As soon as you start to explore, you have access, and obviously the way the algorithms are set up, once you access one piece of content, it’s suggesting more of the same, or more extreme.”
Hope Not Hate has also set up a “deradicalisation unit” to support vulnerable individuals before they drift further towards far-right extremism and violence. It has hired a dedicated case worker, supported by a consultant psychologist, who will make onward referrals where necessary.
The issue of far-right extremism was raised by the NASUWT in April at the teaching union’s annual conference, which heard that children are accidentally coming across far-right material online while carrying out research for school projects. On the Holocaust, pupils can be as likely to find articles written by deniers as genuine historical accounts, it was said.