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This Is What Going to School with Jihadi John Taught Me About Radicalisation

White, middle class teachers aren't the right people to quell extremism.

by Nile Rice
17 March 2015, 12:21pm

Jihadi John in an ISIS video

Quintin Kynaston Community Academy in St John's Wood has often produced figures that typify media representations and public perceptions of London's poor, troubled youth. In the 1980s it was Madness's Suggs (their hit Baggy Trousers is about Quintin Kynaston), in the 2000s it was N-Dubz' Tulisa Contostavlos, and now in the 2010s it is Mohammed Emwazi – "Jihadi John" – the executioner and morbid star of several ISIS beheading videos.

Before "Jihadi John" was revealed as Emwazi, an alumni of the school, I'd jokingly said to a friend, "I bet he went to QK". If any school could produce a "Jihadi John", it'd be ours, and we all knew it. My reaction to reading Emwazi had indeed gone to Quintin Kynaston was a specific type of shock – not of disbelief, but that an intuition had been right.

Emwazi is not the only Quintin Kynaston alumni to make the journey from London schoolboy to international Jihadi. As of writing this, two other ex-students have been identified as having gone abroad to fight. Mohammed Sakr went to fight for al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Choukri Ellekhlifi went to fight in Syria. Both are now dead.

Emwazi's "unmasking" came hot on the heels of the flight of three London schoolgirls to Syria. This phenomena, as we see it, of children biting the hand that feeds, is now practically an existential question; what is it to be British? What is it about growing up in this country that leaves some vowing to destroy it?

These are questions that have dominated my thoughts since Emwasi's identity was revealed, as I was to learn that I had in fact gone to primary and secondary school with him. At one point we were neighbours.

Further information came out and the rest of our connections were revealed to me. Nothing in this has put me more ill at ease than envisioning Emwazi in my Year Six class, playing with the same classroom board-games I'd played with, sitting one desk along from my own.

The night the story broke, a friend messaged me in shock, telling me that he'd realised that we knew him personally. My friend and I would bunk lessons in the same loose group to play football.

This forgotten fact made me realise that Emwazi, who I had seen around primary school, secondary school, my own home, who I'd played football with, had been so inconsequential that I didn't even recognise him. He wasn't gregarious or charismatic, but nor was he a loner or an outsider – words applied to killers to justify why we didn't see it coming. He simply wasn't someone you'd remember.

What isn't inconsequential, however, are the experiences which led him and two others from Quintin Kynaston down a path where thoughts of fighting for ISIS or al-Shabaab ended up being acted upon.

Quintin Kynaston is based in the exclusive St John's Wood, but draws its students from incredibly deprived areas of London. Many of its students are from immigrant families, many are impoverished. In 2006, Tony Blair used Quintin Kynaston as the venue from which to announce the timetable for his resignation. As a "flagship" for what would become the academy system, it was supposed to be emblematic of his "education, education, education" agenda. It was a guinea pig for a top-down reform, with a new structure that aped the private sector, was management heavy and open to corporate sponsorship.

Then there were the demographics – the large number of Kosovan Muslim students would have been thankful for Blair's interventionist policy. The thought of Blair being pictured with one of the few groups of Muslim kids who would be happy to see him would have been well calculated. By announcing his resignation there, he could not have sent a clearer signal about what he wanted his legacy to be.

However, that announcement didn't go to plan. Outside the school, students stuck around against the orders of staff. Half-coaxed by activists, half of their own volition, they chanted "Blair the murderer", "Blair out". The area was smothered with pictures of a blood-soaked Blair. It was the school in microcosm; lauded but unpredictable, and at times uncontrollable.

The reforms improved grades and league-table positions, but it didn't deal with the wider issues. Since his identity was revealed, Emwazi has been described by teachers as "hardworking". He got the grades to get to uni, but all that proves is that academic success is not an indicator of moral character, nor of being safe from radicalisation.

I remember student calling a teacher a "Jew", and the teacher replying that it was the student who was the "Jew".

Staff often found themselves with students they had zero authority over. I've read articles where it is "revealed" that Emwazi used "Jew" as a slur and went on anti-Semitic rants. This would be no revelation to anyone who went to the school. "Jew" was a standard cuss. There was normally no conviction to this – it was teenage rebellion no different really to the "edgy" comments made in any other school. At Quintin Kynaston, however, these comments often went unchecked.

Pro-9/11 statements were also commonplace and teachers, often not from the local community, did not have the intellectual resources to tackle this rhetoric because it was totally outside of their experience. Many ignored it, some tried to curry favour by joining in. I remember student calling a teacher a "Jew", and the teacher replying that it was the student who was the "Jew". Another teacher, totally at a loss at how to control the class, talked about 9/11 conspiracies, how it was an inside job – yes, "Sheikh Osama" had nothing to do with it.

Jihadi John as a student (photo via University of Westminster)

In an interview, Quintin Kynaston's ex-headteacher has said no children were thought to be at risk. A student from my year made a brief appearance in a BBC Panorama documentary on radicalisation in 2005. That's one child at risk, surely. What is being protected here – reputations or students?

The only thing to look for at that age is alienation – no student at the age of 15 is going to have a fervent and concrete Islamist ideology to spot, an ISIS patch sewn on to their rucksack, a "radical" hairstyle or a passion for edgy Islamist bands. If that's what they're looking for – some caricature of what a "problem child" looks like – they'll never find it.

The knee-jerk reaction to blame Muslims for fundamentalist children is proven presumptuous by the fact that both of Lee Rigby's killers were converts from Christian backgrounds – not brought up as Muslims. This reaction could only come from people with no connection to these communities. That's a problem that goes right down to the teachers.

We understand the white foster parents of a black child will not be fully equipped to deal with issues of identity. Likewise, we understand the need for female teachers so that girls can have female role models – it goes without saying. We understand that the black experience in the UK cannot be experienced by white teachers, and thus black teachers are needed, and so on. Instead, the last Labour government rolled out programmes to fast-track ex-City workers into teaching – another stab at bringing the private sector mentality to schooling – and the current coalition government has sought to fast-track ex-soldiers. Neither group is ideal for tackling radicalisation in schools.

Why are Muslim women, black men, white working-class women not fast-tracked into teaching? These people all too often find themselves as teaching support staff, while people from less appropriate backgrounds and less genuine connections to the children are trusted to teach. There are just 30 black male head teachers across England's 21,600 state schools and 127 black female heads. It's another example of the subtle but ubiquitous class privilege and institutionalised racism that pervades British society.

Whatever we want from our communities, we need to recognise that it will come from schools. If we can't control what socialisation goes on in schools, students will continue to become radicalised. Teachers have to show marginalised groups that they have a place in Britain – one that doesn't involve being a spectre hanging over it. This will hinge on whether society is prepared to make room for these groups – when teaching is still a predominantly white, middle-class profession, it's debatable whether it has even tried.

More Jihadis:

Watch: Islamic State

Beheading People Made the Islamic State

How the Islamic State Became the Juggernaut It Is Today