10 March 2021

Youth (de)radicalisation and the role of non formal education

In recent years, many young people have approached extremism, leading to an increase in youth radicalisation. Many scholars have tried to explain the reasons for this approach to radical and violent themes.  Many variables can be taken into account: environmental factors such as cultural conflicts and subcultures, individual factors such as social marginalisation, average cognitive abilities, exaggerated sense of justice and morality, superficial knowledge of the faith/ideology to which they belong. All these characteristics can create a fertile ground in the face of particular traumas or encounters with charismatic personalities.The process of change for young people is rapid: they are removed from key figures in their lives such as parents and teachers, they change their habits and daily routines and take the path of violent activism. 

Although scholars focus on the backgrounds of these young people and their individual life experiences, several government programmes have focused on de-radicalisation policies without taking into consideration the value of non formal education and projects for the reintegration of these people into society. Despite the fact that formally the management of radicalised young people is based on the recovery of their sociality, the substantive approach in many countries, even democratic ones, is still focused on a justicialist and punitive notion.

This can be seen in the prison system of the EU countries. Prisons have become crucial places in the eyes of governments and public opinion to counter radicalisation. [1] At the same time, they are places where young people are locked up without a clear strategy of how to reintegrate them into society, characterised by discriminatory and violent dynamics that further exaggerate their negative perception of the outside world, reinforcing their dichotomous view of reality. 

Understanding what is wrong with deradicalization policies is crucial to developing a better understanding of the phenomenon of extremism and how to devise better strategies. In this context non formal education can show us an alternative way.

How and why education can revolutionise deradicalisation policies?

In many European States there is still the idea that the only solution to stop youth radicalisation is punishment. Punishment often takes place in prison. Today we know that a system based only on punishment is not efficient. Many sociological and psychological studies, including those of professor Bartolomeo Conti in French prisons (sociologist working at L'École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in 2015 worked on a research [2] on Muslim radicalisation in French prisons with the goal of developing better methods for the reintegration of radicalised people), have shown the failure of deradicalisation policies based on an authoritarian and outdated system that does not solve the problem. On the contrary, it increases the rate of recidivism and extremism in young people. 

The process of identity construction is complex and takes into account different factors. Young people develop their behaviour both through formal education, through schools, and through non-formal education by dealing with their peers. These processes started in a very complicated period of their life: adolescence. As reported by Heinke and Person (2016) adolescence is a time for the differentiation from adult authorities, for the acquisition of autonomous decision-making capabilities, the development of a specific conduct of life, and for the testing of boundaries. [3]

In the period of adolescence, young people tend to mistrust traditional authorities, from parents to teachers. In particular in those who come from a situation of marginalisation and social exclusion we can see a strong impulse toward radicalization movements. Radicalization responds to essential needs such as security in the sense of reducing uncertainties in their psychological perception. In the same way, young people have a need for authority and belonging, which extremist groups can apparently offer. 

For this reason, formal education, based on rigid structures and norms, is sometimes incapable of distancing them from violent ideologies and making them citizens. The rigidity of education reflects society's inability to reintegrate radicalised young people left in their misery and abandoned in prisons. In this framework the open structure of non-formal education can help.

Non-formal education aims to build young people's sense of strength and self-awareness. It seeks to deliver a set of soft skills that are part of the cultural and emotional background of each individual person, developing a strong sense of autonomy. Non-formal education is based on peer-to-peer relationships, with other young people in the same situation or who have had different life experiences and are willing to share them. 

The European Union ha recognized this approach in the 2018 Commission communication Engaging, Connecting and Empowering young people: a new EU Youth Strategy:

'Youth work brings unique benefits to young people in their transition to adulthood, providing a safe environment for them to gain self-confidence, and learn in a non-formal way. Youth work is known for equipping youth with key competences and skills such as teamwork, leadership, intercultural competences, project management, problem solving and critical thinking. In some cases, youth work is the bridge into education, training or work, thus preventing exclusion' [4]

However, there are weaknesses in this system. Non-formal education is voluntary, unlike formal education. Non-formal education involves the effort of all actors in society who have to learn to move in the same direction. Non formal education needs flexibility by the actors involved. 

Several European countries do not recognize the value of non formal education, do not have adequate structures, do not allow NGos dealing with the rehabilitation of young violent people to innovate and create plans for the training of specialists. There is a lack of cooperation between the public and private sectors and a lack of common approaches, methodologies and standards. By consequence, there is a lack of funding.

At the same time training young people without an authoritarian method takes time and patience. In the short term it may seem a losing model. But if the aim is to make radicalised young people understand and comprehend the value of living in a society based on the rule of law, it is essential to take the path of non-formal education more forcefully, helping organisations that work to make prisons a dignified place for human life, helping schools and teachers who have to deal with difficult situations in classrooms every day, and investing in activities, associations and facilities by making our cities more open to young people and their essential needs. 


[1] DARE: Dialogue about Radicalisation and Equality Case studies of interactive radicalisation France Bartolomeo Conti, EHESS, France 2020. 

[2] Bartolomeo Conti: Between Deradicalization and Disengagement: The Re-engagement of the Radical Actor?. Terrorism, Radicalisation & Countering Violent Extremism : Practical Considerations & Concerns, pp.43 - 56, 2019.

[3] Heinke and Persson 'Youth Specific Factors in Radicalization' (2016)

[4] European Commission communication Engaging, Connecting and Empowering young people: a new EU Youth Strategy (COM/2018/269 final).