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Lessons of 9/11 – The role schools can play in tackling extremism

Kamal Hanif OBE argues that the recent anniversary of 9/11 was a timely reminder that secondary schools need to initiate discussions about extremism

  • Lessons of 9/11 – The role schools can play in tackling extremism

More than 20 years on from the murderous events of 11th September 2001, and in light of recent events in Afghanistan, it’s clear that the legacy and learnings from that day are no less relevant in classrooms today.

Amid COVID lockdowns and young people learning from home without interacting in classrooms with their friends, peers and teachers, there has been a rise in the online grooming of young people into extremist ideology, particularly Far Right extremism.

We saw this in the hate directed at England players in the Euro 2021 finals earlier in the year, and more recently in games played abroad.

Meaningful dialogue


As an education charity, SINCE 9/11 is focused on supporting teachers with tools that enable them to teach the events, causes and consequences of 9/11, so that we can create a better, more peaceful and harmonious future.

Our specially commissioned report from the UCL Institute of Education, ‘Addressing Extremism Through the Classroom’, highlights how, by opening up meaningful conversation, debate and dialogue in classrooms, extreme ideas and ideologies fuelled by intolerance of the ‘other’ can be challenged before they take hold.

By allowing students to engage in difficult discussions and confront extreme ideas – such as Islamophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, racist or antisemitic views – we will help build a legacy of hope from 9/11.

Open debate in classes should be encouraged, and time set aside in the curriculum so that students can come to understand different perspectives on topical issues, while developing respect and tolerance towards alternative views.

What makes an identity?

Such discussions can, of course, result in extreme, offensive or biased views being raised, but this presents an opportunity for teachers – and more powerfully, students themselves – to challenge such views and explore an alternative perspective.

School leaders can help by promoting opportunities to have these discussions, whether it be during lessons and/or in tutor times, assemblies and incidental conversations with students. This needn’t involve specific discussion of extremism itself; it’s more about finding space for views to be expressed and then challenged.

I would recommend that teachers provide a structure that allows pupils to investigate their own cultural and ethnic identities, and allow time to examine the origins and consequences of their attitudes and behaviours towards other groups.

Efforts should also be made to represent the broad range of experiences and peoples that compose the British population. Acknowledge the ways in which multicultural experiences have contributed to the knowledge base, value systems, and ways of thinking within the curriculum. This ought to be accompanied by the teaching of critical literacy skills right across the curriculum.

Students should learn that all cultures and religions interpret their history through certain narratives, and that these contribute to individuals’ identities.

Acknowledge that these identities will be based on multiple factors, including the diverse and sometimes contradictory realities of belonging to multiple groups. Depict people from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds who have achieved in the public sphere.

This is not a job just for teachers. Wider society needs to be engaged, but schools can help by bringing families into these discussions. That way, we can truly build a legacy of hope.

Kamal Hanif OBE is a trustee of SINCE 9/11 and executive principal of Waverley Education Foundation – a multi academy trust in Birmingham – and an expert on preventing extremism in schools, having advised on the subject nationally and internationally; for more details, visit since911.com or follow @SINCE911uk

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