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'Stop Extremism'. Courtesy of stanciuc / Adobe Stock.

Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism Through Education Initiatives: Assessing the Evidence Base

Claudia Wallner
Occasional Papers, 30 June 2020
Tackling Extremism, Terrorism and Conflict, The Prevention Project
This paper assesses the effectiveness of preventing and countering violent extremism through education initiatives, and highlights what can work (and what does not).

In the context of the broader global shift towards ‘softer’ approaches to countering terrorism, education has gained increasing prominence in combating radicalisation and recruitment by violent extremist groups and offering positive alternatives to it. While the relationship between education and violent extremism remains ambiguous, the potential of educators and school systems to increase the resilience of students against violent extremism has been highlighted by policymakers and practitioners alike. Given that it is often young people who are associated with violent extremist groups and activities, the prospect of reaching a majority of youths – including those who might be at risk of radicalisation or recruitment – through education interventions could be a central element in the reduction of terrorism globally. 

Yet, interventions in this space are not without challenges. The research for this paper demonstrates that preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) education interventions are often based on assumptions and not on rigorously tested models and theories. Given the paucity of publicly available evaluations of interventions, the research observed that little evidence to support these assumptions has been generated so far and the popularity of certain intervention sub-types appears to have been taken as a proxy for effectiveness, thus encouraging replication or repetition. Nevertheless, the lack of empirical evidence for the effectiveness of P/CVE education interventions cannot automatically be assumed to mean that these interventions are ineffective.

The aim of this paper is to review and analyse the existing literature on education and P/CVE, and identify and analyse some of the key assumptions that constitute the basis for interventions in the education sector. The paper interrogates the evidence base for these commonly used assumptions and for the interventions that have emerged on a global level. Despite the differences between national education systems and local contexts, a global analysis of different approaches can reveal general mechanisms and patterns of the effectiveness of interventions and provide lessons and insights for future programming. In doing so, this analysis will contribute to the existing body of knowledge on what works (and what does not) in education-focused P/CVE interventions. 

The main focus of this paper is on P/CVE interventions, initiatives and practices in the formal education sector. This includes initiatives implemented in schools and educational institutions covering a broad age range, extending from primary and secondary education to higher and further education. The project did not define an age range, and includes all interventions based in the formal education sector that were covered in the literature, regardless of the age of students targeted. This was to ensure inclusivity and to account for the differences in educational contexts and age groups that typically receive formal education in different countries. 

Similarly, no limitations were set with regard to terminology. While concepts such as ‘violent extremism’, ‘terrorism’, ‘radicalisation’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ have distinct – albeit not universally accepted – definitions, it is beyond the remit of this paper to delve into the rigour and limitations of these concepts. Hence, this paper’s understanding of these concepts reflects how they were used and understood in the literature reviewed.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of stanciuc / Adobe Stock.

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Claudia Wallner
Research Analyst

Claudia is a Research Analyst in the Terrorism and Conflict research group at RUSI. Her research focuses on... read more

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