I went to the UK's 'School of Jihadis', and I can't believe how it has been treated by the press

Contrary to popular opinion, we didn’t have bomb-making classes at Holland Park Comprehensive

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The Independent Online

As a former pupil of Holland Park Comprehensive in west London I have got used to the school making the headlines. Has any state school in the country ever been the focus of so much controversy – and so much misinformation? The news that six suspected jihadists attended the school has given rise to the latest round of vilification, and it’s time to put the record straight.

I was an HPS pupil from 1998 to 2005, and my year included two women, Nawal Msaad and Amal El Wahabi, who were tried at the Old Bailey this year over charges of funding terrorism. Msaad was caught with £16,000 in her underwear, which El Wahabi gave her to courier over to Turkey in January. Like myself, and others in the school, they are second-generation Moroccan immigrants from moderate Muslim families, and me and many others lived in council estates on the same roads as multi-million pound mansions.

The high-profile case, despite the obvious implications of El Wahabi being found guilty while Msaad was acquitted, is waved about by right-wing press as an “example” of the types of inner-city school hoodlums that HPS churns out. But why should an entire school be tarred by this association?

Nassim Terreri, a British Algerian who was also in my year group, was one of three ex-Holland Parkers killed in Syria in 2012 after he travelled there as a freelance journalist to document the civil war. Syrian officials have labelled him as foreign terrorist wanting to fight against the bloody regime.

The media have focused on his style of dress and mannerisms after he rediscovered Islam. Apart from his involvement in a Gaza convoy led by MP George Galloway, attention has focused on Nassim’s ethnicity, schooling, socio-economic background and family life – all of it on the basis of questionable evidence spouted by Syrian government. I met up with HPS friends last year at a 10-year reunion and we all remember him as a genuinely pleasant boy who made no enemies.

 

Young jihadists are a recent worldwide trend and, at HPS, we didn’t have bomb-making classes in Design and Technology or PE lessons in dodging grenades. Rather, we had honest discussions, were invited into each other’s homes and debated war and peace with fellow students, a lot of whom were refugees. We had inspiring teachers who were passionate about stretching their stubborn students’ minds beyond what the government thought we should know in order just to pass exams.

Dubbed the “Eton of Comprehensives”, the school straddles wealthy parts of Kensington and the lesser privileged – but now rapidly gentrified – areas of Ladbroke Grove and Shepherd’s Bush. A rich melting pot of cultures, we were taught that there are more things that unite us than divide us.

Notable HPS students include journalist John-Paul Flintoff – author of school memoir Comp – and Melissa Benn who with her Labour parents Caroline and Tony has tirelessly campaigned on behalf of comprehensive schools. Actress Anjelica Houston and various musicians also attended, among many other unsung heroes.

Nelson Mandela came to hold an assembly around 14 years ago. We were spell-bound and he remains close to our hearts. Mandela told us that education was important, and lessons in hard knocks also gave us the resilience to survive the harsh world so we had more than a few playground battle scars and GCSEs to show for our time.

HPS defied conventional expectations of what a school should be – the then-no uniform policy and rules would be considered lax by some people. We were taught to question everything and think independently, but since when was progressiveness a recipe for violent jihad?

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