Children are accidentally coming across far-right material online while innocently carrying out research for school projects, a teachers’ conference has heard.
Delegates debating the influence of the far right in schools heard that children’s access to social media and smartphones means they are more at risk of being exposed to extremist material than ever before.
In one example cited during the debate, a teacher described how pupils searching the internet for information about the Holocaust for their homework were as likely to find articles written by Holocaust deniers as genuine historical accounts.
The debate was tabled at the annual conference of the NASUWT teachers’ conference amid growing concern in schools about what was described as the “insidious radicalisation” of children.
Teachers said the casual use of hate speech by politicians and leaders is “filtering rapidly into our schools and the homes of our learners”. They also said the pandemic had increased the risk for young people, who were forced to spend more time online during lockdown.
Rachel Minto, from North Tyneside, addressing the conference, said she was alarmed and appalling by the gradual normalisation of far-right views and described the ease with which fascists were gaining access to young minds.
“Gone are the days when far-right information and propaganda was confined to the back rooms of seedy pubs and clubs. This material can now be accessed 24/7 with a few swipes of your phone.
“More worryingly, children can accidentally come across this material whilst innocently researching for school projects. A Google search on the Holocaust can bring up information provided by a Holocaust denier as easily as legitimate or sound historical documentation.”
Candida Mellor, a French teacher also from North Tyneside, said: “We need to actively educate our students about online infiltration of far-right messages. These insidious organisations use subtle tactics to indoctrinate very vulnerable children.”
She called for more support for teachers. “I need educating on how to help my students to understand what these messages are and how to avoid them, how to understand how they’re affecting them.”
The NASUWT general secretary, Dr Patrick Roach, said official numbers of reported hate crimes have risen to more than 124,000 a year in England and Wales, of which nearly three-quarters were racially motivated.
“We are alarmed by the incidence of far-right extremism and hate crimes in the UK. Over the last decade, the government has peddled a hostile environment agenda, which has created the conditions for hatred to flourish.
“Schools are not immune, as children and young people are often exposed to hate speech on social media and elsewhere. More needs to be done to examine and address the problem of extremism within schools and colleges.
“Concerted government-level action is urgently needed to support schools in tackling the problem and to support pupils and teachers who have been targeted and victimised.
“Anti-racism must be central to the curriculum and schools and colleges must also be supported and equipped to provide a curriculum that challenges all forms of bigotry, prejudice and hatred.”
Teachers at the conference voted on Monday for the union to lobby the government to invest in new international education programmes to promote diversity, and to produce better training for members to help them challenge far-right views when they arise in the classroom.