The Bethnal Green Front-line

I recently had the privilege of joining a group of teenage school children at the centre. They had written and were rehearsing radio shows for live broadcast on East London Radio later this month.

Everyone is struggling to understand how three fifteen year old school girls from Bethnal Green could possibly be attracted towards a life in Syria amongst violent fundamentalists. For an answer, we should listen carefully to a group of young East End playwrights.

Civil rights group Cage blames MI5. London Mayor Boris Johnson blames Cage. David Cameron isn't sure what to make of Boris Johnson but on the whole thinks the parents need to shape up. Writers and journalists have their own hypothesis, some quite outlandish. According to a recent article in The Spectator, the girls' motives involve living out some sort of weird jihadi version of Fifty Shades of Grey. And the chattering classes are conveniently co-located with their subject matter. Juxtaposed to Bethnal Green is Shoreditch, home of irony, waxed moustaches and girls carrying typewriters in the baskets of their vintage bicycles. Everyone has an opinion. But disappointingly, no one seems to be asking the girls' contemporaries for their insights and perspective. No one, that is, except the staff of Bethnal Green's own cultural centre 'Rich Mix'.

I recently had the privilege of joining a group of teenage school children at the centre. They had written and were rehearsing radio shows for live broadcast on East London Radio later this month. For me, this was meant to be nothing more than a fun day out of the office listening to some young storytellers. But five minutes round the corner was Bethnal Green Academy, the school from which the trio of jihadi school girls launched their expedition to Syria and my students for the day all came from neighbouring schools. They were almost exclusively hijab-wearing girls, a couple of years younger than the now-famous trio. And as I listened to them rehearsing their productions, an increasingly clear picture emerged.

The first story I heard was entitled 'Tower Block' and it begins dispiritingly with a picture of a childhood hemmed in by both the physical structure of a building and the inability to be heard. Narration is provided by the principal character, 'Gabby', who longs to be a rapper and gives us lyrics such as;

Sorting out the clothes,

and still nobody knows,

what my life is like in fact,

in this tiny flat.

I wanna walk out the door

but on the 13th floor......

The sense of entrapment results in the central character resorting to a web-based fantasy world, the young mind escaping from an unacceptably mundane existence to something more aspirational but also one that is dangerously disconnected from reality;

So I have to live just virtually,

not in a place of reality.

I need to live digitally, electronically

but you know I think ironically

that this may be the place for me.

Unsurprisingly, this results in a typical teenager's demand for liberation and the opportunity to experience the wider world;

If I don't go out there I'll never know

and how will that help me grow?

I need to know how it feels,

I need to make this real.

But you keep me away from harm by locking me in with "SAFE".

I want to be free -

so please find me the key.

The answer, from the point of view of the principal character, clearly isn't to be inoculated from evil. But nor is she looking to go it alone. What she wants is an opportunity to blossom as a young woman - but with a little help. This desire for parental partnership and support is expressed even more clearly towards the end of play when the central character lays out the "rules of the game" with erudition rare in a young girl who has barely reached her teens;

As I slept that night I dreamt of a new me

My mind was full of endless possibility

Hear my voice, my shout for something new,

Help me cos' I still rely on you,

Cut the apron strings I'm begging you mother

Walk alongside me cos' I don't want any other.

Be my friend, I don't want more hostility

Be there on my journey to be me.

The answer seems to be neither a traditionalist, hierarchical approach to parenting, nor total liberation. What these youngsters want is a progressive relationship that encourages self-actualisation whilst benefiting from Mum's wisdom. It's hardly rocket science and maybe not that original, even allowing for the fact that the whole piece was developed by young teens. But maybe what's illuminating are some of the things that are absent from this piece, starting with the role of Dad. No male figures feature in this play and nor in a second juvenile piece I experienced at The Mix, a modern Cinderella story entitled 'Locked In'. In this latter story 'The Prince' is actually a female teacher called Miss Prince and her role is to interdict in an abusive home environment, supplying the modern Cinderella with details of the Childline telephone number!

What conclusions should we draw from all this? It seems to me that by far the most important is the acknowledgement that Schools like Bethnal Green Academy and London Enterprise Academy are full of clever, creative children, not battalions of latent jihadis. But we also need to recognize the dangers of segregated, hierarchical family structures, combined with urban poverty and lack of opportunity. We shouldn't be surprised if fertile young minds seek outlandish forms of self-fulfillment in the absence of attractive alternatives. It turns out that our front-line defence against extremism may not be Cage, M15, politicians or even armies. It just might be a performing arts centre five minutes walk from Bethnal Green Academy.

Joff Sharpe is a governor of St.Mary's Bryanston Primary Square School, Marylebone.


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