Countering extreme views

Countering extreme views
How should schools respond when faced with extreme views from pupils and parents? When views are expressed which go against the values of the school and make other members of the community feel unsafe, what should be done? This week, a group of school leaders met at Thomas Estley Community School to share experiences and ideas, in an event hosted by our partner organisation Life Lessons.

These issues are incredibly complex and difficult to root out. Mandi Collins, Principal of Thomas Estley Community College, used the powerful analogy of Japanese knotweed, explaining that not only is it difficult to remove, but also that the roots often remain unseen beneath the surface. She described the impact of an Equalities Audit, led by Angelina Idun, director at SSAT had, in terms of amplifying some voices within the school that could easily go unheard. Mandi highlighted an issue echoed by subsequent speakers about tackling ‘banter’ and how to challenge negative views which are unlikely to warrant any kind of formal complaint but can significantly impact members of the school community. She explained the importance of giving young people direct experience of people who are different to them as a means of supporting understanding and tolerance.

Betsy Milne, a PhD candidate at UCL in Gender and Sexuality Studies shared a fascinating insight into her research. Nicole from Life Lessons had already referred to research from Kings College, London, which suggests that young men are more likely than older men to think that feminism is harmful and that it is harder to be a man than a woman. Betsy built on this, explaining the ways in which misogynistic attitudes are being reinforced online through the ‘manosphere’ – a decentralised network of online communities united by hatred of women and feminism. As Nicole from Life Lessons pointed out, young boys’ engagement with this kind of content is complex. Underpinning apparent bravado is often deep vulnerability and insecurity. It can be easier for a young man to respond aggressively to the complex issues he is facing in his first forays into adult relationships than to admit that he is anxious and unsure. Discomfort and guilt can push boys and men to disassociate themselves from issues relating to male violence, reacting defensively and feeling that they need to demonstrate their masculinity to their peers.

Adam Marriott, Director of PSHE and RE across the Brooke Weston Academy Trust provided excellent advice about how to embed meaningful learning which addresses difficult issues. He stressed the need to ensure that approaches are systemic – with key messages being reinforced through numerous channels across the school. He uses safeguarding data to inform curriculum development, ensuring that when there is a spike in concern around a particular issue, this is tackled in a variety of ways – through the PSHE curriculum, but also in assemblies, through use of external visitors and in tutor time. Where there is a more significant concern about a pupil’s views, bespoke interventions are planned. Adam also shared their approach to assessment in PSHE, using regular knowledge checks following PSHE lessons and assemblies – “we need to know what they know, and what they don’t know.”

Paul Rhodes and Jo Hirst, from Uppingham Community College shared their considerable experience in supporting the personal development of young people. They stressed the importance of keeping conversations open, making the point that if extreme views are challenged in the wrong way, we run the risk of embedding those views further.

At Uppingham Community College, they have made excellent use of anonymous feedback from students and staff to challenge negative views. Using direct, anonymised quotes in assemblies and staff training has proved to be a powerful way of supporting understanding and surfacing questions and concerns. Staff have received training to explore the ‘why’ of changes that are being made and also to provide them with practical guidance about managing potentially sensitive situations. Careful thought has been given to how best to really listen to students, recognising that attempting to immediately shut down negative views can be counter-productive. Students need to hear a different view, but are unlikely to be open to this if they feel that their views have been dismissed. As Jo said “keeping the conversation is what drives the biggest change.”

Nicole Rodden from Life Lessons highlighted three main causes of extreme views – the influence of others, including parents and the wider community; a sense of belonging and a lack of empathy. The complexity of these causes highlights the difficulty of challenging views. It is possible that pupils will not have seen an alternative view, the influence of peers is very strong and young people may well feel that their sense of self is being challenged. To meaningfully address challenging issues goes to the heart of school culture. As Nicole said, it is about getting to a point where pupils respect that “we discuss tricky topics at school.” Pupils need time to explore different narratives, in order to learn that we can be respectful even when we disagree. Issues need to be explored in a way which connects directly with the lived experience of young people – which is why the Life Lessons platform shares the voices of people of a similar age or slightly older, who pupils will be able to relate to.

The event prompted some really interesting questions, which we will continue to explore within the network:

  • How can we support young people to be critical consumers of online content?
  • How can we empower young people to call out negative views and behaviour?
  • How can we encourage young people to positively influence their peers?
  • How can we make best use of positive role models among staff and pupils?
  • How do we respond when members of our wider community disagree with our values?

On my way to the station following the event, I met an Uber driver called Mohmed. Our conversation covered a lot of ground as we inched through the traffic and he helpfully offered to charge my phone when I mentioned the battery had gone. He joked that I had better not forget it, seeing as we had already established I was a long way from home. He then started telling me about how often he found himself returning lost items, often left on the back seat by customers a bit worse for wear after a night out. “People often offer me money,” he said, “but I won’t take it – it is their property, it’s the right thing to do.” He had recently had a customer, he said, who was really rude and aggressive. He had left a phone behind, but the battery had died and the customer hadn’t got in touch to track it down. He remembered the address and decided to deliver the phone back. I commented that it was kind, particularly since the man had been so unpleasant. Mohmed replied “you can always do the right thing. And I think, when you do the right thing, maybe you can change people’s attitudes.”

Unknowingly, Mohmed summed up perfectly so much of what had been said that afternoon. Challenging extreme views is complex and nuanced, but modelling the change we want to see, as all of the speakers are doing exceptionally well, is a good place to start.

Alex Galvin, Senior Education Lead, SSAT

Alex Galvin, Senior Education Lead, SSAT

Alex joined SSAT in 2008 and is now a senior education lead. She runs SSAT’s Leading Edge network, our network for high performing schools, supporting schools to collaborate, innovate and share best practice. Alex also leads on curriculum for SSAT. Prior to joining SSAT, Alex taught for fifteen years in schools in Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

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