The revelation that three high-profile Islamist militants, including Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi, attended Quintin Kynaston school in North West London, has prompted Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan to call for an inquiry into the school. The history – which reads like a socialist parable – will be lost on Morgan, but it is worth retelling.
Mohammed Emwazi, Choukri Ellekhlifi, and Mohamed Sakr all attended Quintin Kynaston in the early 2000s. 70% of the children at the school were from Muslim background. The head at the time, Jo Shuter, was known as “Blair's favourite head teacher”.
Within her first year at the school 100 staff left, 70 in the first term. A former staff member described her boasting of getting rid of “dead wood” - i.e.experienced teachers and union activists. In their place were brought a new generation of teachers geared towards turning the school into an exam factory.
In 2006, Tony Blair visited the school to announce the first wave of “trust schools”, an initiative to take schools out of local authority control. The school was closed for half a day and a few handpicked kids were chosen for the media circus.
This visit happened in the midst of the Iraq war and just weeks after the Israel-Lebanon war, in which Blair gave tacit support to Israel. Some students at the school were caught up in that war when visiting family in Lebanon over the summer holidays. Others were refugees from Iraq.
Classroom assistant Robin Sivapalan organised a protest against the visit with the backing of Unison, the NUT, and the Stop the War Coalition. Many children from the school attended the protest and it was featured on the national news.
Sivapalan was sacked for his role in organising the protest and the children were vilified in special assemblies.
Shuter's attitude is summed up in a statement to the Morning Star:
“I can assure you that this behaviour was not supported by anyone [sic!] at the school. Indeed we were horrified that our children had been exploited and abused by a political organisation.
"Our students were put in serious danger physically and emotionally by the outrageous actions of these political 'rabble rousers' who had no concern for them as young people but simply used them as pawns for their own political ends.
"I have today held a staff meeting and will be holding a whole school assembly later to explain to the students how the actions of 50 out of 1500 have been perceived and how it clearly reflects so poorly on the school...
"I personally remain a big supporter of Tony Blair whose policies I value and who I personally feel is a man of integrity and honesty.”
It would be crass to draw any direct causal link between this episode and the eventual fate of these former students. However, this episode shows something rotten at the heart of the neoliberal school, which Jo Shuter's regime exemplified.
Shuter did not believe that the children at the school could express any political belief and were only capable of being manipulated by others. She was unable to see that she herself had done what she accused Sivapalan of, "using students" as “fodder for a political campaign", namely her campaign for self-aggrandisement and warmonger Blair's campaign for legitimacy. She did not consider her action to be “political” at all.
The limits of democratic discussion and debate were set by the neoliberal agenda. This was a school in which there was “no alternative”. Critical thought, questioning authority and taking action against injustice were met with repression, ridicule and incomprehension.
The students were denied a political voice or space for critical reflection. And the teachers at the school failed to behave as fully functioning adults – critically-minded people seeking to shape the world around them. With only a few exceptions, teachers lined up behind the head in attacking the protest.
The teachers were neoliberal subjects, compliant, passive consumers who bowed to authority, kept their heads down and followed orders. Their work involved replicating these same qualities in their pupils.
This is a education system geared to passing exams and preparing people for the world of wage slavery. It is an environment where the adults do not act as responsible, thinking, democratic citizens, and where children are not nurtured in ways of critical thought and political action. It is precisely in such an barren neoliberal environment that the most perverse and reactionary rebellions are formed.
The postscript: Jo Shuter was struck off the teaching register after she admitted to pilfering thousands of pounds from the school (including spending £7000 of school money on her own birthday party), and is now being investigated for fraud.
It would be unfair to blame individual teachers for the fate of those three students, but we should all think about the role we all play in shaping an environment where the evolution from London schoolchild to Islamist executioner is possible. The passive spectators will support calls for further attacks on our civil liberties, hoping Big Brother can save us them from Islamist terror. But real hope lies in us all taking up the fight to democratise our education system and society at large.