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Social media fuelling record rise in extremism in schools

Jonathan Hall KC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, told i there was a 'strong likelihood' that a rise in terror referrals this year is the result of online radicalisation

Social media is likely behind a record rise in extremism in schools, the UK’s leading terror expert has warned, following a surge in the number of pupils referred to counter-terror authorities by their teachers.

Figures published by the Home Office on Thursday showed that 39 per cent of all referrals to the Prevent counter-terror scheme in England and Wales came from teachers and education workers in the year to 31 March 2023.

It marks a 16 per cent rise compared to the previous year and the highest proportion since Prevent was established in 2007.

In total, there were 6,817 referrals to the counter-terror programme in England and Wales in the year to March, marking a 6 per cent rise since 2022. More than half of all referrals were for under-18s.

Jonathan Hall KC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, told i the steep rise in referrals through the education sector and the “strange” types of extremism flagged reflected the growing problem of online radicalisation.

Those showing “vulnerabilities” but with no clear ideology or terror risk made up the highest proportion of people referred to the scheme last year, with 2,505 flagged under the category – around 37 per cent of all cases.

For the second year running, those showing signs of extreme right-wing ideology vastly eclipsed the number of individuals referred to Prevent over concerns over Islamist extremism.

Far-right referrals were the second most common type of referrals with 1,310 cases, while those with “conflicted” extremist views were the third-largest category with 1,214 referrals. The number of individuals flagged over concerns relating to Islamist extremism were significantly lower, with 781 cases in the year to March.

“The strong likelihood is that very many referrals derive from online radicalisation, because the nature of the referrals is so strange,” Mr Hall told i.

“Clearly things are being said which make educators and health professionals and police worry that they are looking at a potential terrorist.”

Mr Hall also raised concerns about the proportion of referrals for incel-related extremism and school massacre ideology that were escalated to the Government’s Channel programme, where individuals are given tailored treatment if they are deemed to be at a significant risk of radicalisation.

The Home Office added incels as an official terror threat category for the first time last year, amid growing concerns over the online subculture, in which a misogynistic worldview is promoted by individuals who blame women for their lack of sexual activity.

Out of the 159 children flagged to Prevent over school massacre concerns in the year to March 2023, 18 were fast-tracked to the Channel programme, while 13 out of 69 flagged to the scheme for incel-related extremism were escalated.

“There’s no evidence in the offline world of school massacre movements, or groups, no protests, propaganda on lampposts, people on street corners advocating for killing classmates,” said Mr Hall.

“It can only come from the internet. There are thousands of referrals for individuals who are conflicted or have no identifiable ideology – that is not nascent terrorism as we know it in the real world, and must come from the online domain.”

All education settings have a responsibility under the Prevent duty to report any students showing signs of radicalisation.

The Department for Education updated its guidance for schools last October to include specific advice about online radicalisation. It recommended that teachers draw up lessons on recognising extremist content online, “exploring techniques used for persuasion” and informing students about how to get support.

But teachers have reported feeling increasingly powerless to provide quality lessons on the subject.

A 2021 report by academics at University College London found that teachers in the UK were not being given the time, training or resources to teach pupils about hateful extremism. It found that lessons on the subject were “highly variable”, and in some cases “superficial” and “tokenistic”.

Some headteachers told i earlier this year that they had taken the initiative and hauled students into assemblies to discuss matters including inceldom, extreme misogyny and Andrew Tate – the social media influencer charged with rape and human trafficking in Romania in June.

It follows concerns that some children are being exposed to extremist content at increasingly young ages as they move online earlier.

Last year, a 13-year-old schoolboy from Darlington became the UK’s youngest person to be convicted of terrorism offences. He was arrested as part of an investigation into right-wing terrorism and later charged with possessing manuals for making explosives.

Meanwhile, Exit Hate, a national charity that supports families affected by far-right extremism, said it was recently asked to help a nine-year-old boy who had fallen into the grips of far-right extremism.

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