Teachers can help counteract the rise of the “incel” movement and the dangers of misogyny with school lessons on respect for women and healthy relationships, ministers believe.
A government source said that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, expects teachers to be able to tackle the risks from incel culture through the relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum within schools.
It follows concerns sparked by Britain’s worst mass shooting in over a decade, in which Jake Davison, 22, killed five people including his mother and a toddler in Plymouth last week.
After the attack, it emerged he had shown interest in the incel – or involuntary celibate – online culture fuelled by misogyny and abuse of women. Police are investigating whether this was a motive for the shootings. On Thursday, an inquest heard that he argued with his mother, for whom he expressed hatred online, before the killing spree.
The new curriculum, to be fully introduced this year when state schools in England reopen, gives teachers wide flexibility to explore topics such as beneficial relationships as well as darker aspects such as coercive control and hatred of women.
The government source said teachers should be encouraged to incorporate discussions about incel culture within the topics, with Williamson endorsing the “key point” that teachers had the flexibility allowing them to do so.
A spokesperson for the government said: “Schools play a crucial role in helping pupils understand the world around them, both through the RSHE curriculum – which allows for a school-led approach on teaching pupils about a range of current issues, including on incel culture – but also through their safeguarding duties, supporting staff to identify young people that may be at risk of radicalisation.
“The Prevent duty is also a vital part of our work to keep vulnerable pupils safe, and schools must take steps to protect them from being drawn into terrorism.
“We work closely with schools and local authorities, who must ensure their staff, including social workers, are able to identify pupils most at risk and recognise where early intervention is needed.”
Schools, universities and local authorities also have a statutory duty to protect students from “radicalisation and extremist influences”, the government noted.
It comes as teachers in Scotland are also to undergo training to recognise signs of young people being radicalised by incel ideas. Education Scotland will hold a video seminar next month on “incel ideology and how it can present both on and offline” hosted by Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, a lecturer at the University of Kent who specialises in digital culture and its effects on gender and relationships, the Times reported.
She praised the Scottish authorities for recognising incel violence as a form of terrorism and creating strategies to address it in schools, contrasting it with England. “In Scotland, there is an understanding that it is a pattern of behaviour that can be tracked and monitored,” she said. “In England, it has not been termed terrorism and is still being dealt with using the lone wolf, one-off narrative.”
Before last week’s shooting, UK ministers had been concerned enough about the threat posed by the incel phenomenon to order new research into how social workers are managing cases where it and other emerging subcultures could be a factor in the radicalisation of children and young people.
The draft report, drawing on consultations with 10 local authorities, police and Home Office research, was published in June.
The incel threat was named by the Department for Education tender commissioning the research. It noted that the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, had identified that an “increasing number of quite young people are being caught up in terrorism, including new forms of terrorism – not just conventional Islamist, extremist or right-wing terrorism, but other new emerging forms, such as the incel movement”.
The report, by consultants Cordis Bright, found that most areas reported an increase over the past three to four years in referrals involving extreme right-wing ideologies and mixed/unclear ideologies, though in many local authorities they were a smaller proportion of radicalisation referrals than those related to Islamist extremism concerns.
The category of “mixed/unclear ideologies” was said to include: “Unclear ideologies, such as conspiracy theories, misogynistic viewpoints, a fixation on school shootings, or Q-Anon.”
In many cases, the specific ideology itself was not important to children and young people and the report found that some continually switched between ideologies, making it difficult to categorise the risk and develop a response to it.
While an investigation into the Plymouth shootings is underway, counter-terrorism officials have previously identified at least two British plots where incel ideas may have been a factor in young men in their early 20s plotting mass casualty attacks.
In Scotland, Gabrielle Friel was found guilty in 2020 under the Terrorism Act of possessing weapons but cleared of another charge alleging he wanted to carry out a “spree killing”. The charge that he was motivated by incel ideology was “not proven” under Scottish law. In Middlesbrough, Anwar Driouich was jailed in 2020 for having an explosive substance after a court heard he trawled the internet reading about mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and incels.
A spokesperson for counter-terrorism policing told the Guardian it defines incel as an ideology and where the terrorism threshold was met would classify incel cases under a category known as Left, Anarchist and Single Issue Terrorism (LASIT). Such cases were considered on a case-by-case basis, and would continue to be monitored as an emerging threat.
The government’s Prevent frameworkhas recognised incel as a category within radicalisation for a number of years. However, referrals relating to incel ideology were said to represent such a tiny proportion of the overall number that they were subsumed into the “other” category in the annual Prevent statistics.
William Baldét, a Prevent coordinator and practitioner in countering violent extremism for 10 years, said: “I’ve not personally seen anyone coming through who was explicitly driven to violence by the incel community but we have seen an increase in people engaging with those subcultures. It may be because we are better at recognising it, it may be because of an increase, or both.”
He added: “It’s clear that misogyny as a concept runs deep through a lot of extremist ideologies. Incel is different in that it’s built around a hatred of women and feeling of inferiority, rather than bringing about societal change, but there’s a related need to tackle misogyny across society. That should be part of the whole system, at every level, and not just framed trough counter-terrorism.”