What really works in educating against extremism?  New learning globally, Prof Lynn Davies


When it comes to educating against extremism, two fundamental questions inevitably arise – what works, and how can we measure it? Eight key principles of effective PVE (Preventing Violent Extremism) emerge from an extensive global review I have just completed,  commissioned by the Segerstedt Institute of the University of Gothenburg. They were interested in what educational institutions in different countries were actually doing in terms of educating against extremism, and what evidence was available on what works. Those of us involved in education see a lot of prescription out there about what schools ought to do, and some collections of ‘good practice’, but this was the first time a major review has examined in order to categorize the wealth of ongoing different initiatives globally.  It was a fascinating endeavour.


From 23 countries in Europe, US/Canada, Africa, Middle East and South East Asia, I identified 20 different entry points for interventions (although of course many overlap).  These included direct approaches to tackling extreme Islamist or Far Right radicalization, and more indirect ones using intergroup contact, dialogue, integrative complexity, moral disengagement, conflict resolution or diverting youth into sport or arts.  I looked at whole school value systems such as Rights Respecting Schools or Philosophy for Children, as well as religious education and PHSE.  Also included were interventions inviting former extremists to tell their stories, or using multi-perspective history and the holocaust to understand propaganda.  Digital literacy is also frequently tackled.   In countries facing poverty, initiatives that improve economic opportunities and civic engagement can make the pull of extremist groups that promise money or status less appealing.


Every initiative will have an explicit or implicit theory of change – some assumption that participants will be more tolerant, will understand their or others’ religion, will have greater self-esteem, will be able to critically analyse messages, be more resilient to radlicalisers and so on.  But evaluations in this area are notoriously difficult.  While a project can have measurable effects on attitudes or knowledge at the immediate moment, long term impact can rarely be demonstrated.  Too many variables intervene, not least a renewed outbreak of conflict or violence. Yet the report was able to extract some principles of what seems to work, or the minimum that is needed to have any impact at all.

So…. initiatives in PVE work better:

  • When a strategy is firmly embedded into a school in its permanent safeguarding policy, in its ways of thinking (e.g. rights, value pluralism, philosophy for children) and in its curriculum (e.g. multiple perspective history). One off events such as a theatre group or speaker are nice, but they need to be located in a habit-forming way of critically viewing the world we live in.
  • When teachers have had good (i.e. more than superficial) preparation to be able to discuss controversial issues, react to an immediate terrorist event and/or safely and sensibly identify children at risk
  • When a programme is non-prescriptive, not moralising, but leads to independent thinking and reflection on ethical dilemmas and concerns; when learners are listened to and their views and experiences given a hearing.
  • When a holistic set of ‘recipients’ is envisaged and targetted – students, teachers, family and community, acknowledging the networks of interaction that surround learners
  • When a wider range of actors is involved and consulted on the roll-out of the programme – local police, religious leaders, community actors or social workers
  • When a multitude of ‘drivers’ of extremism is acknowledged and a programme does not just target one (e.g. poverty, or ideology)
  • When an objective is not just learning about ‘other’ faiths, but is about providing a political understanding of conflict
  • When a practical and visible outcome is achieved: civic engagement, campaigns, production of counter-narrative materials, peer mentoring, i.e. that learners are not just recipients of ‘interventions’ but become active in anti-extremism work themselves.

PVE work has in fact to be wary of the notion of an ‘intervention’, with the implication of a one-off attempt at interrupting a negative pathway towards radicalisation, and should be more about building a permanent culture in schools where resilience to extremism is just one aspect of a fuller learning of rights, history, religious and ethnic conflict, and community dynamics. PVE work is also about promoting habits of active citizenship in terms of tackling injustice and grievance through non-violent means.


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Comments (2)

  1. Mark Proctor:

    Hi Lynn,
    Spot on and the basis of our approach in Zanzibar. We are currently developing a new project linking our ongoing formal teacher training programme (lesson study) in Zanzibar with our community based livelihoods/environmental management approach utilising madrassas in rural Pemba. I’ve been aware of your work for some time through BIACE and also from Dr Cathryn MacCallum (Alkanaan) my co-director of Sazani and Anne Breviek who worked for us and is still a close colleague. In Zanzibar now but would be keen to meet up to discuss collaboration.

    1. cjuser:

      Thank you Mark, we will pass on your comment to Lynn, and are super interested in hearing your experiences in Zanzibar.

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9/11: The Al Qaeda attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington on 11th September 2001, which triggered President George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and the  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

7/7: The co-ordinated bomb attacks on London by four young British men in the name of Al Qaeda, on 7th July 2005, which killed 52 people.

Al Qaeda: Terrorist group founded in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden, which committed the 9/11 attacks.

Islamic State (Daesh/IS/ISIS/ISIL): Terrorist group formed after the fall of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. It is the most prominent recruiter of Westerners to its mission to establish its own state.

CONTEST & the ‘4 Ps’: The British Government’s Counter Terrorism strategy initiated in 2006, revised in 2011, consisting of 4 strands: Prepare, Protect, Prevent and Pursue.

Prevent: Aiming to stop (prevent) individuals from supporting terrorism or becoming terrorists.