Academy head in ISIS schoolgirl recruitment row attacks anti-extremism strategy

Mark Keary, the headmaster of Bethnal Green Academy, gives a speech in government. Pic

Mark Keary, the principal of Bethnal Green Academy, giving evidence Pic

The government’s counter extremism ‘Prevent’ measures failed to identify radicalisation at Bethnal Green Academy, the school four girls attended before fleeing Britain to join ISIS in Syria, its principal told MPs yesterday.

Mark Keary told MPs: “We found and discovered issues with the original Prevent strategy. We were quite focused through the Prevent strategy on looking for symptoms of radicalisation that on this occasion simply had not materialised.” As a result, Keary believes the strategy needs to be “very regularly reviewed”.

Giving evidence before the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keary was keen to emphasise that “we still don’t know what caused these girls to radicalise. We don’t know what made them make that terrible decision.”

Kadiza Sultana, 16, Amira Abase, 15, and Shamima Begum, 15, left Bethnal Green Academy in Tower Hamlets in February to join ISIS. The girls travelled to Istanbul and then crossed into Syria through the Killis border crossing. It is believed the trio followed a classmate, Sharmeena Begum, who left for Syria in December 2014. The four girls have not been heard from since.

Bethnal Green Academy students captured on airport CCTV. Pic Met Police

The Bethnal Green Academy students captured on airport CCTV. Pic Met Police

When pressed by the committee about how the current student-body handled the news, Keary said: “There is not, as you would probably understand, an open conversation about this that goes on.” The students “saw first hand the devastating consequences when young people take ill-chosen decisions in the way that they did.” But, that “they have understood a great deal more, perhaps, than we give them credit for. They know that what they’ve been sold, is not the reality.”

The Prevent strategy, which was written in 2011, and has been updated since, is the strategy implemented by the government to help schools across the country prevent students from becoming extremists. One key area, which it has been seen to struggle with, is challenging the extremist ideologies that are made to justify terrorism and intervention.

Keary said: “The big issue to do with the prevent strategy, that we embarked upon in the summer of 2014, it was designed to counter a process of radicalisation that had evolved over quite a few years, certainly in relation to organisations like al-Qaida.”

Keary also said that the strategy focused on “the stereotype of the angry young man” who had become “gradually disaffected” but the “difficulty with that was none of the girls involved…exhibited any of those symptoms”.

On how ineffective the measures have been Keary told MPs: “We need to look at the duty of care, see what we can do to ensure that we have buy-in from our communities and all of our staff and ensure that it is supported by genuine work in the curriculum across the board that educates our young people and helps them become far more critical thinkers.”

Keary believes that the radicalisation process evolves to deal with policy changes: “We cannot be caught in the same situation when we imagine the radicalsiation process and those that represent a threat to our young people will simply stand still.”

“What we’ve got to do is learn, and for once be proactive in relation to this. The Prevent strategy if it had one original flaw, that perhaps lingers at this point, is that it is predominately reactive.”




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