Incels: Safeguarding implications for primary schools

Written by: Elizabeth Rose | Published:
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We must not assume that the incel phenomenon only has implications for secondary safeguarding practice – primary schools must be alert too. Elizabeth Rose considers how we can respond to this new and rapidly emerging threat, offering practical advice and reassurance

The Prevent Duty (DfE, 2015) is woven through guidance for all schools. Schools have a responsibility to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” (Home Office, 2015) and are encouraged to promote “fundamental British values” (DfE, 2014) which includes a respect for democracy, tolerance of other cultures and a making positive contribution to the community.

The importance of being alert to radicalisation is embedded in our safeguarding training and practice, but recent developments in risks around radicalisation have caused a sense of unease. In this article I will explore some of these changes and consider the best approaches to tackling this issue.

The emergence of ‘incels’

On August 12, 2021, a man shot and killed five people, including a three-year-old girl, in Plymouth. Following investigation, police found links between the murderer and the online “incel” movement (Griffin, 2021).

A government source close to Gavin Williamson, then education secretary, is reported to have said that it is expected that teachers should be able to tackle to risks from incel culture through the curriculum.

This caused considerable concern, as this was (and still is) an emerging issue with a complex pattern of risk and many schools do not feel equipped with the knowledge to do this.

In November, we saw another terror attack (unrelated to incels) outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital and the terror threat level was raised from “substantial” to “severe”. As such, Prevent and radicalisation has risen once again to the top of the agenda and many safeguarding leads in schools are implementing more training and revisiting key ideas.

What are ‘incels’?

“Incel” is a shortening of the term “involuntarily celibate”. The term has been adopted by a growing group of predominantly white males, who use websites such as Reddit and 4Chan to discuss misogynistic and violent views about women which they have as a result of feeling rejected by them

Some Reddit threads have more than 40,000 members and a shared language is used to speak in derogatory and dehumanising ways about mainly women, but also men who have sexual relationships with women.

Often there are undercurrents or indeed blatant examples of racism, and this has sparked concerns with links to the far-right. There have been a number of attacks in North America with links to incels, with two high-profile attacks in California (six people killed in 2014) and Toronto (10 people killed in 2018). Both men who carried out these attacks are lauded in incel groups.

Incel rhetoric involves men blaming women for rejecting or ignoring them, the belief that women are only interested in the “ideal” man (based on appearance and money), and beliefs that this is an inescapable inevitability – some men are biologically inferior so they will never be able to have a sexual relationship with a woman.

There are wider beliefs as part of this that feminism is “hijacking men’s rights” and women are aiming to oppress men. As you can see, there are many hooks that could start a chain of radicalisation and lead to extremism and possibly violent attacks (for more on the phenomenon, see Heritage & Koller, 2020).

As schools, we need to understand this, but also recognise the risks to the individuals accessing these groups themselves. There are many references on the forums to suicide and self-harm.

Disturbing terms such as “roping” (hanging) and “LDAR” (lay down and rot; the belief that essentially there is no hope for these men so they should just give up) are used, which is extremely harmful to the individual’s mental health and wellbeing and promotes the idea that there is nothing left to live for – a dangerous component when violence is so openly discussed.

This is not solely an issue for secondary schools and colleges, increasingly this language is being used on mainstream social media channels and on gaming platforms, so younger children may also be exposed to this.

What do schools need to do?

After the Plymouth attack, some voiced concerns that we should be doing something different, that we need to know how to respond to this new threat and that it will require a new way of working.

However, I would assert that it is simpler than that. Yes, we need to make sure that we are aware of the latest risks to children and ways that they can be harmed, and we need to consider the role that online radicalisation can play and ensure that we are working to keep children safe in this arena, but we also need to recognise that many things we already do to prevent radicalisation will help to respond to this issue.

Staff training

Ensure that staff understand what an incel is and some of the key terms to listen out for. Incel terms, such as referring to women as “Staceys” and men who are successful with women as “Chads”, are finding their way into the mainstream, so a good understanding of what to look out for is key.

Also, revisit the signs and symptoms of radicalisation (changes in behaviour, withdrawal from friendship groups, increased levels of anger, for example) – the things that may make children more vulnerable to radicalisation and what staff should do if they are worried.

Ensure that staff training includes how to respond to any kind of misogynistic or sexist language at all levels and ages; responding to this kind of language early on will help to keep children safe.

The curriculum

The curriculum should promote tolerance, understanding and respect. It should teach children how to identify and report things of concern and tackle difficult issues head-on in an age-appropriate way.

Issues such as misogyny, consent and feminism should be covered in PSHE, so that children get the facts that they need to equip them with skills make their own decisions.

Promote equality within the curriculum and provide children with resources from the early years that challenge gender stereotypes. Consider where the opportunities are to support the personal development of young people, including their confidence and social skills, to decrease levels of vulnerability.

Online safety

Share information regularly with parents about staying safe online and ensure that your approach to online safety is integrated across the school – when you talk about misogyny in PSHE, consider if you can integrate examples from the online world – from gaming, for example.

Utilise technology and hold online safety sessions with parents over Zoom, or share key information when parents come into school for meetings. See the 2019 guidance from the UK Council for Internet Safety as well as the DfE’s 2019 Teaching online safety in school guidance (see further information)

Consider the use of language in school

Challenge the use of misogynistic language in school and implement responses that teach children about why it is problematic as well as issuing sanctions. Ensure that your behaviour policy reflects this – it should tie in with your safeguarding policy.

Elsewhere, respond to bullying quickly and support victims. Ensure that all children have an opportunity to feel part of the school community and to make friends with others.

Make referrals and seek advice when necessary

Seek advice or further information from your local Prevent co-ordinator, if you have one in your area. If you are concerned that a child is accessing incel groups then take appropriate action and make a Prevent referral in line with your local procedures if necessary.

Final thoughts

There are many contextual risks that children face and although radicalisation is just one of them, it is a complex and multi-faceted issue, with many permutations. As schools, we must understand what these risks are and share information with staff, but also take a measured approach to responses to emerging threats and consider what we already do and how we can strengthen it.

By having robust education around key issues, promoting tolerance and respect and by supporting children in developing social skills and meaningful friendships, we can help to combat these issues before they even start. 

  • Elizabeth Rose is an independent safeguarding consultant and the director of So Safeguarding. She has worked in education for more than 15 years and is a former designated safeguarding lead and local authority safeguarding in education advisor. Visit or follow her on Twitter @sosafeguarding. Find her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools, November 2014:
  • DfE: Guidance: Protecting children from radicalisation: The Prevent Duty, July 2015:
  • DfE: Teaching online safety in school: Guidance supporting schools to teach their pupils how to stay safe online, within new and existing school subjects, June 2019:
  • Griffin: Plymouth shooting: Inside the dark world of ‘incels’, BBC, August 2021:
  • Heritage & Koller: Incels, in-groups, and ideologies: The representation of gendered social actors in a sexuality-based online community, Journal of Language and Sexuality, September 2020:
  • Home Office: Prevent Duty: Guidance for UK home nations, March 2015 (updated April 2021):
  • Home Office: Prevent and Channel Factsheet, October 2021:
  • Home Office: Prevent e-learning module:
  • SecEd Podcast: Effective safeguarding practice in schools (featuring Elizabeth Rose), April 2021:
  • UK Council for Internet Safety: Safeguarding children and protecting professionals in early years settings: Online safety considerations for managers, February 2019:

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