Countering Extremism, an account of the Birmingham schools ‘Trojan Horse affair’, is a devastating critique of government and media Islamophobia, finds Judy Cox
John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole, Countering Extremism in British Schools?: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press, 2017), viii, 280pp.
The Trojan Horse affair was a shocking example of how Islamophobic narratives in both government and media can destroy outstanding schools and teachers, and damage the education of thousands of children. Countering Extremism in British Schools is an erudite and forensic account of the Trojan Horse affair, one which fully justifies the authors’ comparisons with other infamous miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six. This is the story of how a brilliant school with 99% Muslim pupils, rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, became pilloried not only by the media but also by the government. In the process, the authors have produced a devastating critique of government policy.
In November 2013, a letter arrived at Birmingham City Council. It was initially dismissed but in March 2014 the letter was leaked to The Sunday Times, which printed an article, ‘Islamic Plot to Take Over our Schools’ (p.140). The media scented blood. ‘Men of Pakistani origin’ were reportedly instigating a plot to take over and Islamise state schools. Accusations centred on Park View Academy. Park View had been a failing school in 1996 but by 2002 it was deemed one of the most improved schools in the country. By 2012, when it became an academy, pupil’s results placed the school in the top 14 % of the country, despite just 7.5% of the children speaking English as a first language, with a higher than average number of children with Special Educational Needs and 73% of pupils entitled to free school meals (p.4). The 2012 Ofsted report stated that:
pupils make excellent progress in their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. There is a wide range of opportunities for spiritual development, for example, through well-attended voluntary Friday prayers meeting. Assemblies and tutorials promote a strong sense of pride in the school community. This contributes very well to students’ keen understanding of their rights and responsibilities, and they are profoundly aware of how their actions can affect others (p.150).
The then head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, declared that every school should be like Park View when he visited in March 2012 (p.144).
Despite the school’s successes, the media furore grew with The Sun reporting on ‘regimes of hate and fear’ in the Birmingham schools. ‘Witnesses’ came forward to accuse the schools of promoting an Islamic agenda, forcing female teachers to cover their hair, introducing gender segregation and intolerance towards gays and to other religions. The Department of Education had requested that Park View take over two ‘failing’ schools, Nansen Primary and Golden Hillock Secondary School. Yet, this ‘takeover’ was reported as a part of the ‘hard-line’ Islamists’ plot to take over more schools.
Snap Ofsted inspections of 21 Birmingham schools, all based in predominantly Muslim areas, found that Park View had gone from outstanding to inadequate, a judgement which led to the Park View Education Trust’s funding being withdrawn. Then Minister for Education, Michael Gove, commissioned an inquiry led not by a school leader, but by Peter Clark, ex Metropolitan Police, head of Counter Terrorism. Birmingham City Council commissioned its own report, led by Ian Kershaw. Both reports were issued in July 2014.
The Clark Report found an ‘organised campaign to target certain schools’ and an ‘intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos’ (pp.172-3). The Kershaw Report issued similar findings and described governors at Golden Hillock as ‘like a pack of animals’ (p.179). Wilshaw declared there had been an orchestrated campaign to impose a ‘narrow faith-based ideology’ on schools (p.162). The reports, which were supposed to investigate allegations made in the letter, simply repeated the arguments it contained. The leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore, announced that the council had failed to act because of ‘a misguided fear of being accused of racism’ (p.4).
Several teachers who had led the school from inadequate to outstanding now faced life-time bans from teaching and had their names and pictures splashed across the tabloids. They spent three years banned from teaching only to find that the case against them collapsed when key documents were not given to their defence teams. This meant that they were denied the opportunity to clear their names.
This witch-hunt could only have taken such a hold within the context of a growing critique of multiculturalism and a developing argument that social deprivation was a result of ‘self-segregation’ by Muslims (p.28). The controversial concept of ‘British values’ highlighted a rejection of inclusivity and diversity in favour of the idea that minority groups must assimilate into ‘British culture’. Within this narrative, Muslims were identified as ‘irreconcilably different’ (p.36), a group who pursued religious practices in contradiction of ‘British values’. However, research has shown that young people are radicalised not by Islam but by their disappointment with the realisation of their rights as British citizens. Thus, for minorities: ‘The issue of integration appears to be less their unwillingness to integrate and more with a failure by others to include’ (p.42). Yet any attempt to meet the needs of Muslim pupils was interpreted as ‘Islamisation’ (p.187).
The Prevent strategy had an important role to play in the Trojan Horse scandal. The increasingly dominant counterterrorism agenda created a patchwork of insecurities and the ‘politics of unease’ around Muslims, despite a lack of evidence that strict Muslims are more likely to become terrorists. French author Olivier Roy has argued that, ‘terrorism does not arise from the radicalisation of Islam but from the Islamisation of radicalism’ (p.57). The Prevent strategy focused on Muslim areas, thus identifying the very presence of Muslims as a security risk. Neither the Kershaw nor the Clark report found evidence of any conspiracy to promote violent extremism, but the political atmosphere enabled a slippage where ‘conservative’ and ‘extremist’ became interchangeable terms.
The authors interrogate the myths on which the Trojan Horse affair was constructed. Schools were seen as overly religious when daily collective worship and the teaching of religion are statutory requirements. The Birmingham schools had developed their own values-led religious education curriculum which allowed for schools to learn from religions rather than about them. Tory Wandsworth council, the authors note, followed a very similar curriculum (pp.98-9). Gender segregation in sex education lessons and PE is allowed for in the national curriculum where appropriate. Physical contact between pupils, such as kissing and holding hands, was banned at Park View, but anyone rushing to attribute this to hard-line Islamism should bear in mind that Ofsted’s Michael Wilshaw himself adopted similar policies at Mossbourne Academy, Hackney, as he told The Guardian: “hugging has been ruled unacceptable lest … boys use it as an opportunity to do things they shouldn’t do” (p.225).
The positive attitude towards Muslim cultures and religion developed in Birmingham schools, which was so misrepresented in the witch-hunt, aimed to tackle the low-achievement of ethnic minority children. A decline in children’s identification with their own ethnic group leads to a decline in their academic performance, as they internalise society’s low expectations of them (p.135). Yet the valuing of Islam provided fertile ground for a moral panic in which a stereotype of a dangerous figure is amplified in media reporting as a threat to decency and social order (p.138).
The Trojan Horse letter is now widely accepted to be a hoax; not that this has been publicly acknowledged by those who cynically manipulated the issue. But the damage done is not easily repairable. Because of the Islamophobia whipped up by the media and Tory politicians, teachers and governors were unjustly accused of putting children at risk. The educational chances of Muslim children in Birmingham were damaged. Once again, Muslims found that, no matter how successful they were, they could find themselves as tabloid fodder in a phoney war on a radical extremist plot which simply did not exist.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.