Michael Gove Michael Gove. Photo: Chatham House / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

New evidence shows how the Tories were blinded by Islamophobia during the investigation of Birmingham schools, writes Sean Ledwith

Despite the best efforts of the Tories to brush it under the carpet, the infamous Trojan horse scandal has resurfaced in the news. This month, Serial, one of the world’s most popular podcasts, released the entirety of an eight-part investigation into the scandal that rocked Birmingham schools from 2013 onwards. Presented by Brian Reed and Hamza Syed in association with The New York Times, the podcast takes a fresh look at the alleged conspiracy by Islamist educators to take over several schools in the city and use them as bases to promote a hardline Salafist agenda.

The scandal matters because, even though it is almost a decade ago, it was exploited by neocons at the DfE, especially Michael Gove, as the justification to legally force public institutions to enfore the Islamophobic Prevent strategy and the nationalistic teaching of British Values which are still mandatory policies in UK schools.

Hoax

The scandal developed in late 2013 when Birmingham Council received a leaked letter from an unknown source claiming to be part of correspondence between local educators who planned to take control of schools in the city and others in Bradford and Oldham and run them according to strict Islamic principles.

Reed and Syed have uncovered lots of fascinating new material about the case but, crucially, the origins of this letter – now recognised as a hoax – remains a mystery. The anonymous letter further stated there was a secret five-part strategy, known as Operation Trojan Horse, which had already penetrated four schools and was active in one other. Also part of OTH, were supposed intentions to “put in place governors who adhere to the same conservative Islamic values…identify staff to disrupt the school from within by changing rules and undermining unsympathetic colleagues”.

Bogus

Despite widespread suspicions even at the time about the letter’s authenticity, the Murdoch-owned Times newspaper ran the story in 2013 with a clear Islamophic agenda to undermine multiculturalism and to feed right-wing hostility against the UK’s Muslim population. The letter was passed on in 2014 to the DfE which was led at that point by arch-teacher basher and neocon ideologue Michael Gove. He predictably pounced on it, ordering an inquiry to be led by a national counter-terrorism chief, Peter Clarke.

The latter’s appointment was criticised by many as totally inappropriate, even including the Chief Constable of the West Midlands: “Peter Clarke has many qualities but people will inevitably draw unwarranted conclusions from his former role as National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism.

The Serial podcast includes evidence from Birmingham Council officials that they warned Gove the letter was “bogus”, based on “a serious credibility gap” and contained “serious factual inaccuracies and in a number of areas, contradictions.” The Education Secretary ignored these warnings, partly because of his ideological blinkers but also because he felt under pressure to act from Theresa May, who as Home Secretary in 2014 was rolling out her racist ‘hostile environment’ strategy. Gove has so far failed to respond to the charges made against him in the podcast.

Witch-hunt

Apart from the ideological axe-grinding of Gove and his acolytes at the DfE, the scandal also exposed how Ofsted is integral to this government’s reactionary educational agenda. The inspection agency was dispatched into 21 primary and secondary schools in Birmingham, five of which were placed in the special measures category.

This intervention was typical not just of the institutional racism that permeates the DfE but also of the authoritarian manner in which the Tories have pursued education policy, especially regarding the enforcement of academicisation.

Clarke dutifully carried out the Islamophobic agenda of his master and concluded there was “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools in the city.” Professional misconduct charges were brought against 15 teachers in the area but by 2017 all these cases had been dismissed or dropped.

Targeted

Professor John Holmwood from Nottingham University was closely involved with the legal defence for the accused members of staff and noted the negative impact on the Asian community in Birmingham and beyond:

“The affair represents a serious injustice upon teachers and governors, as well as parents and pupils linked with the schools. It has also had a profound effect on public policies that have created anxieties about the integration of British Muslims.

The school at the centre of the controversy, Park View Academy, was blatantly targeted by Gove because if its high intake of Muslim pupils.

Despite having almost three-quarters of them on free school meals and with over 90% having English as a second language, the school had somehow pulled itself into the top 14% of English schools by 2012 in terms of academic achievement. Another school, Oldknow Academy, had been judged by Ofsted as outstanding in 2013 but somehow had become inadequate just two years later. The politicisation of the inspection process under the Tories was clearly behind the strangely inconsistent outcomes.

Awareness of the Trojan Horse affair even crossed the Atlantic, leading Trump to parrot the ludicrous claim by Fox News’ so-called terrorism expert that Birmingham was “totally Muslim where non-Muslims simply don’t go in“. Unsurprisingly The Daily Mail swallowed the hoax letter hook, line and sinker and asked its credulous readers. “how did Birmingham become the jihadi capital of Britain?

Pernicious Prevent

Holmwood has noted that the Prevent strategy introduced into law by the Tories to supposedly undercut extremism in British schools has a built-in Islamophic bias with one third of the general population living in a so-called ‘Priority Area’ but three-quarters of the Muslim population being so designated. UK officials linked to the programme are even advising authoritarian regimes in China and India in methods of suppression regarding their Muslim minorities, according to Holmwood.

The so-called British values of democracy, rule of law, liberty and tolerance linked to the Prevent strategy are far from exclusively British and are, in reality, just a smokescreen for the Tories to justify the presence of a more aggressive form of nationalism in our classrooms. The history of the British Empire actually shows London-based governments over the centuries have been instrumental in crushing all four of those aspirations around the globe – but don’t expect that fact to be ever admitted in a DfE teachers’ guide.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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