MI5 didn't know - so how could we?

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
Leeds schools officers try to reassure devastated staff who knew and liked suicide bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan

Spotting would-be terrorists is not a teacher's job, the head of schools in Leeds has said.

Chris Edwards, chief executive of Education Leeds, the council-owned firm that runs the city's 277 schools, said: "How can we stop this happening again? We can't. It is not at the heart of what we do."

Three of the bombers involved in the London attack on July 7 came from Leeds, including Mohammad Sidique Khan, a learning mentor at Hillside primary in Beeston. Khan, the Edgware Road Tube bomber, was at Hillside primary from 2001 to 2004.

Mr Edwards said Leeds already had anti-racism policies that would combat extremist views aired in school. He said: "This is not the fault of the education system. This is not about disaffection. These were successful men. One had good qualifications, another was a hard-working learning mentor. That is why it is so hard to come to terms with."

Hillside primary staff have had counselling from Mike Haworth, a senior educational psychologist with Education Leeds.

Three years ago Khan was interviewed and photographed by The TES for an article about high pupil mobility at Hillside. He said then of the pupils:

"A lot of them have said this is the best school they have been to."

Mr Haworth said: "The teachers are reassuring children that everything is going to be OK. Staff have expressed guilt about not having picked up what was going on. I have told them if MI5 can't pick up what is going on, they are not going to."

Mr Haworth, who met Khan once, said: "They have been talking in the staffroom about how Khan bought clothes for single parents and lent people money. We have said it is all right to have these positive memories. What he has done does not mean those feelings are of no value now."

In a statement headteacher Sarah Balfour said: "All of us at Hillside are utterly shocked to hear that one of our staff had been responsible for such an horrific act. I can assure parents that his behaviour gave us no cause for concern while he was with us."

Jamil Ahmed, general secretary of the Leeds Islamic Centre and manager of the city's Harehills education action zone, said: "There is a need for parents, schools and community leaders to work together to make young people feel comfortable with their need to question established values, to prevent them from being hijacked by outside, extreme influences. They have to feel they can talk openly about their concerns."

Ejaz Hussain, the manager of Raja Brothers newsagents in Beeston - where a second suicide bomber, Shehzad Tanweer also lived - said schools had a role to play in stopping the spread of extremist views.

Mr Hussain, who has a daughter in Year 2 at Greenmount primary, Beeston, and a 15-year-old daughter at New Horizon community school, an independent girls' school, said: "If schools could teach the Koran after school for half an hour, we would not have to rush back and forth between the schools and the mosque at the end of the day.

"Heads could keep an eye on what was being taught. When you ask the Imam what is being taught at the mosque, they don't know. When you ask the (mosque) committee, they don't know."

Colin Bell, head at South Leeds high school, formerly Matthew Murray school where Khan and a third bomber, Hasib Hussain, were pupils, said: "We already have robust anti-racist policies in place. Any anti-western sentiments would be treated as racism and not tolerated.

"I looked through Hasib Hussain's records and he had about two detentions in five years. In the scheme of things that is pretty normal for a teenage boy. The school did not withdraw him from his GCSEs (as earlier reports said)."

Apart from lessons stopping for the two-minute silence last Thursday and some children receiving counselling, it has been business as usual at the 1,300-pupil school. "The staff want to move on. Like the rest of us they wish it had never happened," said Mr Bell.

Housing in Beeston is in a poor state, much of it rented or belonging to housing associations.

Gary Ward, programme manager at St Lukes youth project, Beeston, has been out on the streets allaying young people's fears: "I have been telling young people that the police are looking for murderers, not Muslims, that their religion is not the issue." Hussain played football two years ago on one of the youth project's outreach programmes.

Parents at Hillside, where Khan worked, collected children as normal this week, determined to keep their usual routines going.

The school, a rambling Victorian edifice, is closing to merge with nearby Greenwood primary. New uniforms were being issued to children last Tuesday.

The joint school, New Bewerley community school, will be housed at Hillside next year, but a state-of-the-art school is being built on the Greenwood site to open in October 2006, providing the whole impoverished neighbourhood with childcare, health and lifelong learning.

One Asian mother, collecting her children from St Luke's Catholic primary, close to Hillside primary, said she had grown up with Khan and had been a pupil with him at Matthew Murray school. "I now feel I can no longer take people at face value. We no longer know what to think in our community.

This will affect us for a long time to come."

Sarwar Khan, secretary of the Kashmir Muslims' Welfare Association, said that Khan was respected for his work with young people. "No one here was aware of Sidique's dark side. We are still feeling the shock. We have worked very hard to build up community relations, to improve the health and education of Muslims in Beeston. What has happened will set us back 20 or 30 years."

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