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Former head of London Islamic school cleared in terrorism probe misconduct case

Abdullah Keekeebhai was forced to step down in 2019 and then banned from teaching after being wrongfully accused of obstructing a counter-terrorism investigation
Lantern of Knowledge school. (Google Streetview)
The Lantern of Knowledge Islamic school, in Waltham Forest, northeast London (Google Streetview)

The former headteacher of an Islamic faith school in London has been cleared of misconduct by the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) following a case in which he was wrongly accused of obstructing a counter-terrorism investigation.

Abdullah Keekeebhai stepped down as headteacher at the Lantern of Knowledge school in Waltham Forest, northeast London, after the Department for Education sought to bar him from management in July 2019.

In February 2020, he was given an interim ban from teaching by the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA), but the regulator only formally produced a set of allegations against him in April 2022.

A hearing was set for February 2023, but ultimately delayed until September - over four years after he left the school.

On Tuesday, a TRA panel cleared Keekeebhai of all the allegations against him.

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"I am pleased and relieved that after a long four years, the Teaching Regulation Agency has finally dismissed all the misconduct charges against me," Keekeebhai told Middle East Eye. 

An "outstanding" school

Keekeebhai became headteacher of Lantern of Knowledge in 2013. In 2015, an Ofsted inspection judged the school "outstanding", with special praise reserved for its teaching on "British values".

The allegations against the headteacher related to the school's previous employment of a man, Umar Haque, who in 2018 was jailed for a number of terrorism offences after a court case in which it was heard that he had tried to radicalise children at an east London mosque where he had taught an Islamic Studies class between December 2016 and April 2017.

Before that, from mid-2015 to January 2016, Haque was employed part-time at the Lantern of Knowledge school to teach a supplementary Islamic Studies class.

'Justice has finally been done, but not before different agencies of government had publicised false claims against [Keekeebhai]'

- John Holmwood, expert witness

Counter-terror police began investigating Haque in 2016, close to three months after he had left Lantern of Knowledge, and they arrested him in May 2017. When the case went to trial in early 2018, one of the charges against him related to his time at the school. 

Haque and an accomplice were found guilty of offences at the mosque, but the charge relating to Lantern of Knowledge collapsed. 

The police only had one witness prepared, who said Haque showed a class a video produced by the Islamic State armed group - but the witness withdrew their statement and said it was provided under duress. Other children in the class did not report seeing the video. Ultimately, the charge did not proceed to verdict.

Despite this, Commander Dean Haydon - then head of the Metropolitan Police's Counter-terrorism Command - told the media after Haque's conviction: "[Lantern of Knowledge] is a fee-paying school. Parents are paying a significant amount of money to send their children to a school where they would expect them to be safe and be taught by fully qualified teachers. In this case, they weren't. As a result, that's why we intervened as early as we could."

He also said the police faced a "wall of silence" when they tried to investigate.

Banned from teaching

In July 2019, the Department for Education sent Keekeebhai a letter informing him that the Secretary of State was "minded" to bar him from the management of any independent school in England. This was on the basis of a witness statement given by a counter-terror officer who had been involved in the case.

In September 2019, the TRA notified Keekeebhai that they had received a referral from the police in pursuit of banning him from teaching. In February 2020, the TRA formally handed Keekeebhai an interim ban.

The TRA accused Keekeebhai of "unacceptable professional misconduct and/or conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute". It alleged that he had unreasonably delayed in providing the police with information and had "misled and/or attempted to mislead the police and/or the local authority". 

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The TRA also alleged Keekeebhai failed to safeguard pupils, fulfil his duty under the "Prevent" counter-terrorism programme and follow Prevent guidance.

In August 2020, the Charity Commission issued the Lantern of Knowledge school a formal warning, which was widely reported in the national media.

Tim Hopkins, the Charity Commission's assistant director for investigations, issued a statement saying: "Haque's action at this charity was appalling. It is completely unacceptable for any charity to be associated with terrorism and we are concerned by the corrosive effect this might have on public confidence in this and other charities."

In response, the school issued a statement saying: "The Trustees denounce any attempts at radicalisation. Whilst the actions of Mr Haque at our school were limited, Trustees undertook a deep review of all our safeguarding and operational processes."

In September 2020, the Department for Education formally barred Keekeebhai from managing any independent school.

Middle East Eye understands that Keekeebhai intends to challenge the Department for Education's ban on the basis of the panel's recent judgment.

Cleared of all allegations

The hearing was held from 22 to 29 September. On Tuesday, the panel announced that it had found none of the allegations against Keekebhai to be proven, clearing him of professional misconduct.

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The presenting officer for the TRA, the panel determined, did not prove that Keekeebhai had failed to provide, or delayed unreasonably in providing, personnel information to the local authority.

The TRA did not prove that he had failed to respond adequately or that he had attempted to mislead the police and the local authority. 

Nor did it prove that Keekeebhai had failed to safeguard pupils and fulfil his duty under Prevent, or that he was dishonest or demonstrated a lack of integrity.

"The case involved a police officer's narrative of events," Keekeebhai told MEE. "It was found unproven and, in fact, contradicted by the minutes of discussions between senior officers and local authority officials."

John Holmwood, a professor of sociology who served as a witness for the defence in the case, as well as in teacher misconduct cases brought in the wake of the so-called "Trojan Horse" affair in Birmingham, told MEE that the case was "very important but far from isolated". 

"Mr Keekeebhai's record as a headteacher was exemplary," he said. "Under his guidance, Lantern of Knowledge school had been judged outstanding and was commended for safeguarding and preparing pupils for life in modern Britain.

"His misfortune was to employ for a brief period someone who would go on to commit terrorist acts a year after leaving the school. For this, Mr Keekeebhai's reputation and career were ruined. Justice has finally been done, but not before different agencies of government had publicised false claims against him."

'Teachers left in limbo. Careers on hold and teachers blacklisted… untold damage is being caused to teachers' personal and family lives'

Patrick Roach, teaching union general secretary 

The TRA has come under fire in recent years. 

A Schools Week investigation in 2021 found that investigations against teachers accused of misconduct regularly take years to be resolved. 

This past April, Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, accused the TRA of "vying to hold the mantle of bully in chief".

He said that its system "encourages anyone to complain about a teacher – with total disregard for any notion of natural justice or respect for teachers' employment rights". 

Roach argued that the TRA's operation had lasting and immensely damaging consequences: "Teachers left in limbo. Careers on hold and teachers blacklisted… untold damage is being caused to teachers' personal and family lives."

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