East London has a history of extremist groups operating in the area, which has on occasion manifested itself in terrorist activity. Local authorities in the region have been particularly concerned that young people may be vulnerable to extremist ideologies.
To counter this, a consortium of London boroughs worked together to commission a project to develop a cohort of young people to become ‘community stabilisers’, providing a counter-narrative to hateful or extremist activity in their schools. The programme allows 50 young people per borough per year to be trained to calm volatile situations and bring challenging debates out into the open.
The London Boroughs of Redbridge, Newham and Waltham Forest have been identified as priority areas for counter-terrorism and extremism work, receiving additional funding to develop programmes to better manage the risk. Local risk assessments established concerns about the vulnerability of young people being drawn into extremist ideologies, with radicalising influencers operating across all three boroughs and previously targeting young people for recruitment and to communicate extremist dialogue. Two thirds of referrals for Prevent (the government's strategy to stop people from becoming involved in, or supporting, terrorism) in the area were for under 18s, a significantly higher proportion than the national average.
To counter this risk the three boroughs sought to expand a project which had commenced in Redbridge and delivered successful results. The Future Leaders Programme was established with four key objectives:
- develop young people as leaders so they can identify and help tackle the risks/causes of radicalisation
- inform young people so they may help respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism
- empower young people to become ‘community stabilisers’ and Prevent ambassadors so they may help stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism
- safeguard and support those possibly at risk of radicalisation through early intervention and appropriate support.
The programme began in 2019 and sought applications from 50 young people per borough, and over time has grown in popularity; in 2021, 468 young people applied for just 50 places in Redbridge. Applications are assessed to ensure that each school has at least one successful applicant and that local society is adequately reflected within the demographic mix.
The programme is open to Year 12 students, who spend the year developing an in-depth understanding of the principal themes of the programme through workshops, guest speaker talks, enrichment trips and a broad variety of other sessions.
Workshops include sessions on Fundamental British Values (FBV), hate speech, extremism and radicalisation, democracy, violence against women and girls, mental health and developing the skills to drive positive changes in the community. Guest speakers included senior local politicians and MPs, and a variety of judges, barristers, professors, councillors and other experts and relevant third sector organisations.
The programme concludes with each member returning to their home schools as ambassadors of Prevent, and to share messages of tolerance and respect through a programme of school assemblies and activities, providing a counter-narrative to any hateful or extremist activity in their schools. Each individual delivers a legacy project within their school, for example supporting other young people to develop resilience to extremism or improving their understanding of FBV.
The final element of the programme is a graduation ceremony held at the University of Oxford.
The 20-week programme is managed by a local schoolteacher and designated safeguarding lead, with experience of education, cultural leadership and safeguarding.
The project has led to a closer relationship between the local authorities and local secondary schools. This has improved levels of trust and as a result there have been an increase in Prevent referrals from secondary schools across the boroughs.
The greatest impact has been on the cohort of young people who have engaged with the project. The Future Leaders Programme has resulted in hundreds of young people becoming empowered to be community leaders, with greater awareness and understanding of radicalisation and extremism and the tools within them to respond.
This has also led to better access to the youth community across East London, with the public sector consulting with them as a reference group on various relevant policies. This in turn leads to a greater sense of belonging and personal responsibility from the future leaders.
For the young people on the programme, an evaluation revealed they reported:
- a significant increase in the ability to help identify and tackle the risks/causes of radicalisation
- a significant increase in the ability to respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism
- feeling significantly more empowered to become ‘community stabilisers’ and supporting their peers in making positive decisions around involvement in extremist activity
- feeling both supported with and educated about the dangers of radicalisation, leading to a lower risk of them becoming involved in such activity themselves.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The programme was initially funded from a Home Office grant to support Prevent projects, but funding has been diversified in order to ensure that there is not reliance on a single funding stream. In the most recent financial year the Mayor of London’s Shared Endeavour Fund has provided support, and the programme was also able to receive funding from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) through the Violence Reduction Unit funding.
The cross-cutting nature of the programme allows for a range of funding sources to be accessed.
What lessons were learned
Redbridge reported that the key lesson learned from this programme is the importance of having someone with credibility and contacts within the secondary education sector to lead on programmes of this nature; and to use – and trust - the expertise within the education sector to deliver this.
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Student testimonials and a programme summary video can be found on YouTube.