Teaching Anti-Terrorism: How France and England Use Schools to Counter Radicalization

In French schools, there has been a renewed focus on promoting the Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité and the secular value of laïcité – which limits the expression of religious beliefs in public institutions such as schools – since the January 2015 attacks.

Other policies in both countries target students who may be at risk of radicalization. Teachers are expected to report concerns about radicalization to the school leadership or outside agencies. Education professionals are also being trained in spotting the signs of radicalization, although this approach is more widely employed in the UK than it is in France.

The issues raised by atrocities such as the murder of Paty also have implications for how teachers operate in the classroom in England and France.

Difficult Discussions
In the case of France, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo highlighted the difficulties that some teachers already faced in managing discussions around issues such as laïcité and freedom of speech.

In England, the need to engage students in discussions on contemporary issues as part of the fundamental British values policy – and to help them make sense of ongoing terrorist attacks – has revealed some of the same problems.

Teachers, school leaders and policy officials in both countries frequently state that some teachers lack in-depth knowledge of the issues they are increasingly called on to address in class. What’s more, many are afraid of being unable to manage the emotive student responses that sensitive subjects sometimes generate, and, ultimately, of losing control of the situation.

This was a particular concern for some respondents in France, who felt that a tradition of teacher-centered learning – involving lots of teacher talk and little time for discussion – meant that some of their colleagues were particularly nervous about managing classroom debates.

In England, the declining importance of citizenship education in the English education system limits opportunities for engagement with civic values and contemporary issues. This has been compounded, as one school leader pointed out, by a lack of in-depth guidance from the government on how to promote fundamental British values.

My research shows that teachers need to be better prepared for these difficult conversations. This preparation should take place through initial teacher training and continuing professional development.

This training does already exist in some areas of both France and England. In some parts of France, teacher trainers work closely with teams of teachers over extended periods of time on themes such as discussion and debate, students’ religious beliefs, and talking to young people about terrorism.

At a secondary school I visited in London, teachers plan and teach citizenship education days collaboratively. This provides teachers with a degree of support in handling tricky moments.

Participants in my research also underlined the importance of teachers showing respect towards their students in these conversations. There was a feeling among some school leaders and teacher trainers in France that teachers’ own beliefs and how they express them in classroom debates could contribute to some of the heated confrontations that have made the headlines.

It seems that teachers in both countries are not immune to a wider climate of anxiety around Islam and suspicion towards Muslim populations. This may lead teachers to enter into some conversations with a degree of hostility.

This message will need to be delivered carefully. In a context where teachers may be fearing for their safety, it is important that such warnings are not experienced as criticism. At the same time, it would be unfortunate if the horrific murder of Samuel Paty made debate on some of the pressing issues at the heart of these challenges impossible.

Jonathan James is PhD Candidate, Department of Education, Practice and Society, UCL. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.