An exclusive story in the Standard newspaper by BBC Local Democracy reporter Rachael Burford has revealed that two girls were removed by their mother from Bethnal Green Academy and taken abroad 16 months after Shamima Begum and three classmates left the same school to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria.
Children’s Service failures
A litany of failures by Tower Hamlets Council once again raises serious questions as to the competence of its Children’s Services which have already been criticised by Ofsted.
It seems that Tower Hamlets Council only realised the two girls had disappeared after they returned and that it did not carry out a Serious Case Review (SCR) into how this was allowed to happen. Only Waltham Forest Council carried out an SCR.
Tower Hamlets Council had a duty of care to the children because they were pupils at Bethnal Green Academy. The family had been housed in Waltham Forest by Tower Hamlets Council, hence the reason why Waltham Forest Council undertook the SCR.
Girls feared FGM & forced marriage
According to the Standard story the two teenage sisters feared being victims of Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriage after being removed from Bethnal Green Academy by their mother in July 2016.
They were taken abroad to an unnamed East African country and only rescued after they sent a text message to the UK Government’s Forced Marriage Unit begging for help.
The Government did not become aware of their plight until four months after the girls first raised the alarm.
Multiple failures by Council
The failures by Tower Hamlets Council to undertake their legal duties seem to be numerous.
- When the sisters disappeared from Bethnal Green Academy Tower Hamlets council’s welfare adviser was not informed of their absences.
- The adviser should have checked on the family during the holidays but failed to do so.
- Three months after the sisters left, Bethnal Green Academy staff told family members still in the UK that the girls risked being removed from the school roll because they were not at school – but still no alarm bells were raised.
- The girls’ older sister informed Bethnal Green Academy where the two girls were but no return date or address was given and no responsible person at the Academy or at Tower Hamlets Council visited their home.
- Two weeks after this a housing officer also raised concerns, saying she thought that the children “might have left the country under duress”.
- Again no further action was taken. There were also occasions when information was not shared between agencies according to the Waltham Forest SCR review.
After being rescued by the Foreign Office the girls were taken into protective custody and a judge commended the work of Waltham Forest Children’s Services.
Full statement by Tower Hamlets Council
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council said:
“At the time of the Serious Case Review (SCR) we worked closely with London Borough of Waltham Forest and contributed to the recommendations contained in the report.”
“The school has worked cooperatively with Tower Hamlets Council in relation to the matter and has undertaken a thorough review of its policy on taking leave during term time. All staff have been provided with refresher training to ensure they are aware of the correct procedures.”
“We have issued updated guidance on this topic to all schools in the borough on an annual basis and regular meetings are held with teachers and council staff to talk about best practice with regard to children missing education.”
“The council also provides a comprehensive training and education programme around the risks of FGM and forced marriage to schools and a risk management process to provide support for those affected.
SCRs are carried out by the safeguarding board in the borough where those concerned are resident. These girls were resident in Waltham Forest which is why they carried out the review.”
Even for a dysfunctional borough council such as Tower Hamlets this series of events beggars belief.
Full credit should be given to reporter Rachael Burford for informing borough residents of what happened – otherwise none of us would have known.
The manner in which these two girls disappeared from Bethnal Green Academy without anyone from the school or the council being aware is negligent at best.
That the girls were from the very same school that four other school girls had been radicalised and consequently left to travel to Syria and join Islamic State is beyond belief.
LW is on record as questioning the decision by the Council to not carry out SCRs into the disappearance of the ‘Jihadi Brides’. The excuse given by the Council for not undertaking SCRs is that the girls met their fates in another country – conveniently ignoring the fact that the girls were pupils at a Tower Hamlets School at the time.
The official statement by the Council reproduced above does not refer to Bethnal Green Academy. Why not? Fear of embarrassment? Head stuck in the sand hoping nobody will notice the connection?
The statement also points out that SCRs are carried out by the safeguarding board in the borough where those concerned are resident so Waltham Forest carried out the SCR.
True. Also true that these girls were pupils at Bethnal Green Academy which had already been the focus of national attention after the ‘Jihadi Brides’ had left for Syria.
That seems to count for nothing. Because no SCR was carried out after the Jihadi Brides left it is blatantly clear that no lessons were learned by Tower Hamlets Council.
And because no lessons were learned two more girls lives were put at risk.
No borough residents should have any confidence that the Council has learnt any lessons since the latest case.
That means that our children are just as likely to be radicalised now as before the Bethnal Green Academy scandal.
Based on the facts that we know so far – and LW’s firm view is that we do not know all the facts – it is quite possible that other children have been spirited out of the borough.
And nobody knows.