What really happened in Tower Hamlets?

What really happened in Tower Hamlets?

The facts:

– In December, a fifteen-year old girl flew from Britain to Turkey, then travelled on to Syria (her identity remains secret and this was suppressed at the time).

– In December, the Metropolitan Police spoke to seven of her friends at Bethnal Green Academy.

– In February, a police officer spoke to her friends again, and sent a letter to parents asking for a further, fuller interview.

– On Tuesday, 17th February, Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, three of the seven friends, left England for Turkey, subsequently crossing the border into Syria.

David Cameron has said no institution should be made a “scapegoat,” for what happened.  Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has apologised that the letter didn’t “get through” to parents  and has said he’s sorry “if the family feel” the police let them down.  Four teenage girls from Tower Hamlets are now in Syria – but the outrage has blown over.

Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum

Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum

There are many aspects to what happened.  Three questions particularly trouble me.

Interviewing minors

I was surprised to hear the police had interviewed the girls without informing their families.  I’m no lawyer, and I’ve struggled to track down the information I wanted (most advice relates to arrests, or child abuse enquiries – neither of which apply).    Young people may consent to be interviewed if they are deemed to be aware of the consequences of their actions.  However, Achieving Best Evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidance, states:

It is generally presumed that the parents or carers of a child witness will be informed of any interview before it takes place; this presumption is independent of consent.”

Although the document does identify “exceptional circumstances” in which parents may not be informed, these include the possibility “a child would be threatened or otherwise coerced into silence; or that the child in question did not wish the parent to be involved at that stage, and is competent to take that decision.”

No one has suggested the girls were under any threat from their family; nor, given that a letter was subsequently sent home, were the police seeking to keep parents in ignorance.  The police have (perhaps carefully) not used the word “interview.”  However, statements made by senior police officers before the Home Affairs Select Committee make it clear the girls were ‘child witnesses:’

“We were trying to get from these girls information about a further young woman who’d left in December (Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe; Home Affairs Select Committee, 15:49:20).”

“One line of inquiry…” was “speaking to that first girl’s friendship group.  They were spoken to in December (Mark Rowley, Ibid., 15:52:20).”  There were “contacts with the girls, repeatedly and the officer who followed up in February…  they’d given very little in the first meeting in December, he was determined to follow it up and go through a full interview with each of them, he met them and it was a letter to go to parents to say, I’d like to have a longer conversation with your daughters (15:53:06).”

The two statements apparently conflict – that the officer had met the girls “repeatedly” and that he or she met them a second time in February.  But it is clear that police met the three girls twice at least, before parents were informed.  Their parents have emphasised that, had they had any idea, they would have kept closer guard on their children.  (I’m not going to dignify informing parents via letters carried by students with the disdain it deserves).

Question 1) Why were the girls questioned twice, without their parents’ knowledge?

Contrasts – 1

Bethnal Green Academy received a letter from Nicky Morgan on 24th February, 2015, of which these are two excerpts:

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It is not for me to pass judgment on either of these statements – I have no evidence which would permit me to do so.  But I find the approach a marked contrast with that taken towards other ‘Outstanding’ schools, like Park View and Sir John Cass, which were also, no doubt, confident that they were communicating effectively and keeping pupils safe.

Contrasts – 2

“Mark Keary [head teacher at BGA] said pupils cannot access Twitter or Facebook on Bethnal Green Academy computers.

‘Police have advised us there is no evidence radicalisation took place at the academy,’ he said.” (BBC News)

When Sir John Cass School, just down the road from Bethnal Green Academy, was inspected last Autumn, Ofsted declared:

The sixth form is inadequate. This is because students have not been given sufficient guidance on the dangers associated with using the internet, particularly in relation to extremist views.”

Specifically:

This concern related to social media sites bearing the name of a school sixth form society and containing links to individuals associated with extremist activity.”

This was not the only charge levelled against Sir John Cass school – but it seems to me that the assurances Mark Keary made would not have provided sufficient defence against the reasons why Cass’s Sixth Form was judged inadequate.

Contrasts – 3

Graham Stuart, Conservative chair of the [Education Select] committee, said apart from one incident, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found by any of the inquiries into any of the [Trojan Horse] schools involved (Guardian).”

I’m not, for a moment, suggesting that anyone at Bethnal Green Academy has anything to answer for.  What I find bizarre, however, is that a school from which four students have left the country for Syria is treated with such marked restraint, when other schools with less clear proof of ‘radicalisation’ – or none at all –  have been put into Special Measures or had large numbers of governors and staff removed.

Question 2) What do we really expect from schools?  How do we judge them fairly?

The role of the school

In the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing, Keith Vaz noted that the school had gone through the Prevent strategy and not found any risk factors, but were “under instructions” not to inform anyone what had happened (15:50:20 and again at 15:54:54).  The letter from the police stated that “with the school’s permission” the officer in question had been introduced to the students.  Simply to identify the friends of the first girl must have required the school’s assistance as well.  Conceivably, can schools find themselves in situations where their duty to assist the police conflicts with their cut of care towards students?

Question 3) Where does the duty of care for schools lie? 

There is nothing that I know beyond a close reading of the news.  But I believe we should know more than we do.

I don’t understand why we’ve allowed this to pass us by.  Breathe it quietly…  I wonder if the girls’ origins have allowed the mainstream of society to construe this as a problem for ‘other’ people which everyone else can overlook.

I don’t believe these girls and their families were failed by the police; I’m unsure about the role of the school.  I believe that the Met can do better than: “We’re sorry if the family feel like that.”

If I’ve misrepresented anything that happened, I have done so inadvertently and on my best reading of the evidence available.  I would love to be corrected.