Around 30 ex-students of the London Academy of Excellence have launched a campaign accusing the sixth form college of Islamophobia.
The former students say that since 2014, teachers at the East London school ostracised Muslim students for engaging in religious practices, creating a climate of fear and hostility.
And they say that the school is still failing Muslim students by not providing adequate prayer facilities for them.
5Pillars approached the school for comment but they did not respond to us. However, they have released a statement calling the accusations “malicious”.
Among other things, the ex-students have accused staff of:
- Locking empty classrooms during lunch to prevent students from praying.
- Interrogating girls on their choice to wear the hijab.
- Treating Muslim students through a lens of securitisation and suspicion by inviting Prevent officers to “intimidate” students, as well as bringing in the Quilliam Foundation to push for “de-radicalisation” by attempting to convince students that Jumuah prayers were not necessary.
- Telling Muslim students to “leave your religion at home” and calling parents “strict,” “controlling” and “backwards”.
As a result of this, the former students say, pupils prayed in bathrooms, hid under the stairs in the dark, or prayed in the rain in small alleyways because they feared they would be discriminated against in their grades if they were caught.
One ex-student, Mubasharah, who attended LAE from 2013-2015, said: “LAE had an obvious disdain for students who chose to pray. There were multiple systems put in place to stop us from praying, from locking up classrooms, issuing warnings to handing out detentions and humiliating students who chose to pray. Over time we felt like we were criminalised; we had to appoint a lookout every time we had to pray in order to prevent getting caught, getting suspended, and our grades being impacted. It felt like praying was a crime.
“Those who were late to class due to finding prayer space were threatened with harsher punishments including suspensions. If we were caught praying in the building, detentions were given out. It was a very hostile environment, we were made to feel like we were terrorists or extremists just because we wanted to pray. We had to choose between our religion and our studies as getting on the bad side of the teachers meant jeopardising our predicted grades.”
Misbah, who attended LAE from 2014-2016, said a teacher pulled him over and said: “When are you going to Syria?” with a smirk on his face. He said the same teacher asked him: “What is your view on the Charlie Hebdo attacks?”
He said: “I felt like I was on trial being asked to condemn an attack that had no relation to me. I felt like I was on LAE’s Prevent list and questioned if I was being asked these questions by this teacher (name redacted) because he thought I was a potential extremist.”
A teacher who worked at LAE also spoke of own personal experiences.
“LAE used to invite Prevent in two to three times a year, you don’t even get as much mental health training as this which is probably more important. They used to say really strange things such as: ‘you need to watch out for small hints on what’s going on with your students that could be a form of radicalisation, watch out for signs which may tell you you’re students may go abroad and join ISIS,’ ‘if they carry around a Quran, report it,’ ‘if they say Allahu Akhbar, report it, it’s a form of radicalisation’. I was the only Muslim in a staff room full of 30-40 staff, if I voice my opinion everyone would stare at me. I was marginalised, I just had to sit back and watch it.
“I did see students praying in a sneaky way and if I were any other teacher I would have ran to the head teacher or the deputy head to say that I saw students praying. But how could I do that? That would be completely wrong. I used to see students sneak into tiny closet rooms, they were obviously praying, no way was I going to tell anyone that these students were praying, I just let them do what they had to do.
“Students would come to me and ask if they could pray in the corner and of course I would say yes and let them pray, they would say to me ‘don’t worry sir if anyone says anything to you I’ll take the full blame.’ It’s bringing tears to my eyes that this is what the students had to go through just to be able to pray.’”
No prayer facilities at school
Established in 2012, the London Academy of Excellence (LAE) is a high-performing free school in Newham, which receives direct government funding and is not run by a local authority, allowing them considerable freedom.
The school has a large Muslim population as Newham has the second-highest percentage of Muslims in the UK, after the neighbouring London Borough of Tower Hamlets at 32%.
The school first opened in 2012 in collaboration with seven independent schools, six of which continue to support the school as “partner schools.” Its close relationship with Eton College has led to the school being dubbed “the Eton of the East End” by the national media.
LAE is a flagship of the Conservative government’s academies programme. It was visited by then Education Secretary Michael Gove in February 2014, who called it a “superb new free school.”
Campaigners also say that current students have been denied access to a room to pray since the start of the academic year, and have resorted to praying near the school entrance on a grass patch.
A formal request was submitted through the student council regarding a prayer space in October and the governors and are in discussion as to whether this will go forward or not.
5Pillars understands an off-site “Quiet Room” has been offered to current students to pray, which is next to a bar, which students find objectionable. And the space outlaws congregational prayer, led-prayer and prayer that is segregated, which effectively outlaws many aspects of the Muslim obligatory prayer.
The alumni of LAE are demanding accountability for the “Islamophobic treatment” they say they faced. They are demanding the following from LAE:
- A reversal of the decision made by the LAE governing body in 2015 regarding the removal of the onsite prayer facilities that allowed communal prayers.
- Action to be taken against staff found to have been Islamophobic, and who have failed in their duty of care towards LAE pupils.
- A full and unreserved apology to LAE pupils and alumni, concerned individuals and the wider Muslim community.
- A commitment to address institutional Islamophobia, and to build an inclusive environment for Muslim students at LAE, in line with the Equalities Act 2010.
5Pillars contacted LAE about the accusations but they did not respond to us. However, they have issued the following statement on their website:
“We are aware of an online campaign alleging that LAE is an institutionally Islamophobic institution. We refute this allegation as without foundation and regard it as malicious.
“The core of this allegation refers to a lack of on-site facilities at LAE for Muslim prayer. The anonymous authors of this campaign allege that in not providing a prayer room, LAE is failing in its duty of care to respect the religious rights of its sizeable minority of Muslim students.
“LAE has operated since inception in a converted office building that lacks some of the facilities found in schools or colleges with more abundant space and resourcing. There are no on-site prayer facilities for students of any faith. However, the school fully recognises the importance of prayer to many of our students and has hired space a few minutes’ walk from the main school entrance. This space is being used by students of all faiths for reflection and/or prayer.
“This space is offered to students in addition to local prayer facilities that they can access alongside members of the public and notwithstanding the fact that the school receives no dedicated funding for such facilities. The school has consulted extensively with its student council and with community faith leaders over the appropriate use of this space. The school will continue to consult with both the student council and with community faith leaders.
“In addition, to accommodate Muslim students and staff who wish to pray, the school operates a short day on Fridays and its lunch breaks are long enough for students to get to local prayer rooms and back for afternoon sessions. The nearest prayer facility is less than a five minute walk away and provides a Friday Jummah service that is well attended by LAE students.
“We therefore disagree with the suggestion that not having a prayer room on site is an indicator of institutional Islamophobia. The staff and governors of LAE celebrate our diversity and do everything we can to run a happy, healthy, scholarly community that remains true to our core values of kindness, respect, independence, resilience, humility, and excellence.”