A former teacher of terror suspect Ali Harbi Ali, held over the murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess, says as a young boy he happily took part in morning assembly and sang hymns at his Christian junior school.
Ali, now 25, and his younger siblings were among the first Muslim pupils at the Parish Church Junior and Infant school – now Minster Junior – in Croydon, south London.
“They were quite happy at a Christian school and took part in our regular worship,” said the teacher who did not want to be identified.
“Ali wasn’t a high-flyer, but was a hard-working child, especially good at maths. We had plenty of naughty boys, but he wasn’t one of them. He was a good boy, polite and friendly and readily joined in with the other children. I think he was a chess player.
“I would never have said he was on course for anything other than a positive outcome. He wasn’t an isolated child and engaged with his classmates.”
It is thought Ali joined the infants school, a short walk from the family home, in the early 2000s and then moved up to the junior school. His brother and two sisters followed him there.
Today it is renamed Minster Junior School and says on its website: “Our inclusive, Christian ethos underpins a caring, safe environment where values such as self-esteem and mutual respect allow all children and staff to feel confident, happy and valued. We see all our children as unique individuals and really celebrate their diversity.”
The teacher said he was shocked to learn that the boy he taught had been arrested as a suspect for the fatal stabbing of Sir David who was killed in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on Friday as he held a constituency surgery.
“I read the name Ali and hoped that it wasn’t any of the Alis from my teaching days. Then I saw a photograph of his father who I remember collecting the children most days at the school gates.
“His father was a lovely, friendly man who would always come over and chat if he saw me. And when Ali went on to secondary school he would tell me how well he was doing. He was very proud of Ali.”
The teacher said Ali’s parents would always attend the school for the monthly award of certificates to pupils who had excelled at various things. “We always tried to accentuate the positives and reward our pupils in a small way.”
The teacher said: “When I realised who had been arrested I thought what a waste, it unsettled me. As teachers we try to sow seeds that will grow, but not all of them do. The point of education is to help development and when something goes wrong it is so hard to fathom why.
“You ask yourself, did I miss something? I don’t think we did, but you can’t help asking that question. By the time he left my school, I doubt he had formed a view of life.”
Ali later went to Riddlesdown Collegiate School in Purley where he passed A-levels before leaving for university in 2015.
Chief executive Gordon Smith said the school had been working with police since the weekend and was “devastated” by Ali’s arrest.
All staff were called to a meeting to be informed at the end of the school day.
A neighbour where Ali grew up described him as “a friendly kid who used to kick a ball around in the street”.
The man said he remembered him as a young boy who lived in the quiet street for many years until he left for university.
Ali lived in a small terraced house with his mother and three siblings, said the neighbour, who did not want to be identified.
He said: “The father hadn’t lived there for a long time, but Ali was there with a younger brother and two sisters. We didn’t see much of them, all four were head down and studying. When he was younger Ali used to kick a ball around outside here. He was a friendly kid.”
The neighbour added: “I didn’t know them well, but I remember Ali having the same name as his father whom was Ali too.
“It’s been a bit of a shock, watching the news on TV and then seeing the Old Bill here at the house. It’s a great shame, I feel very sorry for the mother.”
Police visited and searched the modest house in the tree-lined street near the centre of Croydon, south London, on Saturday, but have since left. There was no response today.