[Photo: With little in the way of credible evidence, the UK press pandered to the Islamophobic narrative that there was a plot by Muslims to takeover mainstream schools]
In the run up to the election period, Britons have been subjected to yet another round of Islamophobic scaremongering. Story after story would have us believe that extremist Muslims have taken over a number of state schools in Birmingham as part of an organised plot to take control. Muslim community activists were summoned from one media studio to another to explain Muslim position and pushed to justify Muslim presence in school governance arrangements. At times it felt like the beginning of a British Inquisition.
This particular saga was triggered by the infamous ‘Trojan Horse Letter’ and has come to dominate our airwaves for several weeks and will certainly remain with us for a while. Allegedly written by a member of an “Islamist” group, the letter outlined a tactical strategy for a hostile takeover of the schools.
The ‘Trojan Horse’ letter allegedly outlines a 5 point plan aimed at schools with substantial number of Muslim students. The plan includes selecting a group of “salafi parents” who will cause disturbance, taking over governing bodies and sidelining or removing senior leadership.
It is alleged that when such groups take over a school, they impose “extremist”, “conservative”, “militant” version of Islamic practices in the form of strict gender segregation in school. There are also allegations that the science curriculum be diminished to exclude lessons on human reproduction, evolution and the dismissal of the concept of “rape in marriage”.
These allegations have been flatly denied by the school at the centre of these allegations. Furthermore, I taught at one of the schools, attended another as a student and have known other schools through personal network and children of friends and family attending. I do not recognise these allegations. Moreover, Muslim commentators have categorically expressed that restriction on school curriculum as alleged or at all would be unacceptable in state schools.
Sadly, though unsurprisingly, those many questioned the reliability of this letter including the leader of Birmingham City Council have been drowned out by those resolute on reproducing a one sided version of events in Birmingham.
The media onslaught was followed by our ever eager Education Secretary, Michael Gove, ordering Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to comprehensively investigate the alleged takeover and to re-evaluate performance of these schools. Ofsted and DfES obliged, and thanks to their “sense of justice”, fairness and their commitment to transparency, we were drip fed regular doses of “leaked content” of confidential reports.
Controversially Gove appointed Peter Clarke, former counter-terrorism Tsar, to head an investigation into these allegations, a decision criticised by many including Birmingham Ladywood MP, Shabana Mahmood, who branded the move “provocative”. A Christian Governor of one of the schools described the appointment as a “disaster for community cohesion”. This appointment is troubling because it shows that Gove is unable to understand and deal with the issue – a matter of educational policy and a debate to be had on the extent to which aspirations of parents and local community should be reflected in the education of their children in schools paid for, among others, by them. By appointing Clarke, Gove inadvertently reinforced the stereotype hyped by the narrative on ‘war on terror’ that wherever Muslims assert their aspirations and ask that these be seriously considered, they become suspects. And sadly, this does the opposite to countering extremism – these give fuel to al Qa’ida narrative.
Most troubling however, is the war of mettle between two blocks – the neoconservative right wingers determined to challenge the state to redefine the space afforded to meeting the needs of its Muslim citizens, and centre left politicians too eager to make partisan capital out of this to discredit Gove and his vision of education. In the middle of this ideological battle, the Muslim students of Birmingham schools, and now even Luton and Bradford, have become political pawns.
The ‘Trojan Horse’ hysteria has not only targeted Muslims but all those who failed to adopt the right wing press instigated narrative. By way of example, serious concerns have been raised by many involved with the schools being subjected to Inquisition. Governors and teachers involved have questioned the motives and fairness of the inspection regime and accused inspectors of bias. In Luton recently, Ofsted abandoned an inspection of a primary school halfway amidst concerns that inspectors had stepped beyond the limits of public decency. It is reported that children as young as 9 were asked leading questions on sexuality which fuelled anger and resulted in protest from parents. Similar allegations are also made of inspectors attending Birmingham schools.
Birmingham had been proud of its achievements in raising standards in many of these schools by successfully encouraging local parents and professionals to take greater interest in them and is understandably flabbergasted as to the implications of this whole sorry episode.
Birmingham Council has not been spared sharp criticisms despite the fact that most of the schools at the centre of the row are academies out of council control. Even before the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, Ofsted Chief openly spoke of the need of breaking Birmingham into parts. In a meeting of school leaders to discuss the issue, the CEO of Birmingham City Council questioned the unwillingness of Gove and the Ofsted Chief to cooperate adequately with them and expressed fear of a “firestorm” heading its way. In a normal situation, not only would the local authority in question, others would have been concerned too, had the Secretary of State and another head of a watchdog behaved in such a manner.
What has been missing from the whole debate, are the real stakeholders – learners, classroom teachers, senior managers of the schools and parents. Whilst the four separate investigations are underway and that none of the reports made public as yet, there are already discussions, so it appears, of assigning these schools to other academy trusts and/or creating new academies. This will seriously undermine the goodwill and hard work of local parents and other stakeholders.
These schools have had a troubled history. As someone who attended one, taught in another and closely observed the others, I am well too aware of their shocking record going back a decade or more. Ethnic minority children, in this case of Islamic faith, were not given a fair opportunity due to a poor standard of teaching, lack of effective leadership, poverty of aspiration and systematic failure. My own experience attending one of the schools, we were constantly discouraged should some of us have shown the audacity to aspire to go to top universities. Whilst I am not accusing my former teachers of racism, there is a clear case of them setting low expectations of us despite some of our strong academic records. Our stories are not unique – they were how the minority communities were treated and catered for.
We need to use this moment to remember how precious our young people and institutions of learning are and protect them from the ravages of vested interests and biased media.
This is particularly important if one reflects on the implications of accepting the narrative advanced in the name the ‘Trojan Horse’ plan. Muslim parents and professional who have engaged themselves in their local schools, have been vocal about underperformance of their children and demanded significant change have been labelled as potential extremists. Reasonable and innocent aspirations that Muslim children’s social, cultural and spiritual needs be met have the potential to be ignored as “conservative” religious practice. In turn, this will have the potential of undoing the good work that has gone into many of these schools.
Editorial: Inquisition against successful inner city schools CLICK HERE