Olknow Academy

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

On Tuesday 15 July, children trickled out of Park View Secondary School and Nansen, the primary opposite. The sun beat down on a row of television vans parked between the schools – BBC, Sky, ITV – by now such a regular fixture that most children barely noticed.

As the last students left, Tahir Alam, chair of Park View Educational Trust, emerged to give a statement. “The last four months have seen a vicious and co-ordinated offensive against the trust and its schools,” he said. “It has been an attack unlike anything any of us could have imagined when we joined Park View as voluntary school governors many years ago, to make a difference to the lives of children in inner-city deprived communities.”

He announced, with a “deep sense of injustice and sadness”, the resignation of the entire trust. Alam said Park View was the best performing school with its demographic in the country, and that “no one much cared about the young people of East Birmingham when their schools were failing them”.

Alam, at the centre of allegations of an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham, offered no apology. In his version, this was a witch-hunt; a symptom of then education secretary Michael Gove’s “profound mistrust of Islam”. Barely a week later, details of the government-commissioned investigation into the schools began to leak. While the report, by Sir Peter Clarke, neither sought nor found “evidence of terrorism, radicalisation, or violent extremism” in the schools, it did conclude that “there are a number of people, associated with each other and in positions of influence in schools and governing bodies, who espouse, endorse, or fail to challenge extremist views.” Alam was singled out for criticism as a key driving force behind an effort to push children to adhere to conservative religious behavioural codes in secular schools.

The sharp differences in narrative illustrate the polarised debate over Birmingham schools: one camp argues that these schools were indoctrinating children, while the other maintains they simply accommodated the cultural needs of their Muslim intake. What is the truth?

The allegations surfaced in November 2013, when Birmingham City Council received the now notorious “Trojan Horse” letter. Supposedly sent between co-conspirators, it described a strategy to take over state schools and run them on strict Islamic principles. The letter stated that this strategy “is tried and tested within Birmingham”. It outlined a five-stage process: identify the schools, select a group of Salafi parents, put in place governors who adhere to this ideology, identify staff to disrupt the school from within, and run anonymous letter and PR campaigns with the aim of forcing the head teacher to resign. It named specific schools in Birmingham as examples where this had been successfully executed. The letter was passed to the Home Office in December 2013, and to the Department for Education (DfE). By February 2014, the media had picked it up. The consensus was that while the letter itself was a hoax, the allegations merited investigation. The storm gathered. The schools watchdog, Ofsted, announced a series of emergency inspections, even though some of the schools had been given glowing reports only two years previously. In April, Clarke, formerly the Metropolitan Police’s head of counterterrorism, was appointed by the DfE to investigate.

“It was a provocative move. You have an issue of governance in schools and allegations in a fake letter,” says Shabana Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Ladywood. “There is no doubt that a small group of people in our city went on a massive power trip and behaved completely inappropriately – going way beyond the remit and the parameter for governors. But counterterrorism? What is the community supposed to think when their children’s education is viewed as a matter of national security? My constituents shouldn’t feel they have to justify their religion or culture.”

Ofsted investigated 21 schools in Birmingham. Of these, five were judged to be inadequate (despite some previously being rated outstanding) and placed in special measures. These schools were Park View, Golden Hillock, Saltley, Oldknow and Nansen. Charges included insufficient teaching about alternative belief systems, inadequate sex and relationships education (SRE), segregation of boys and girls in some lessons, discouraging the genders from socialising with each other, and bullying and harassment of staff who disagreed with these changes. Some individual examples are shocking: in one SRE lesson at Park View, boys were taught that women could not refuse sex within marriage. (The school claims this was a misunderstanding that it held an assembly to correct.) Other schools failed to teach awareness of forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Shocking as these details are, they do not indicate violent extremism. Indeed, if the schools in question were faith schools, then gender segregation and the prioritisation of one religion over others might have been regarded as a matter of course. Around one third of Britain’s schools are faith schools. The overwhelming majority of them are Christian (around 68 per cent Church of England and 30 per cent Catholic), but there are a dozen Muslim state schools, 42 Jewish schools and a handful of others. After the 2010 Academies Act, many faith schools converted to academy status. All academies can set pay and conditions for staff, and are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum, although the DfE expects evolution to be taught in science. Most of the schools involved in the Trojan Horse scandal were academies, though not faith schools. Various observers, including the educationalist and Oxford academic Professor Margaret Maden, have suggested that the real problem is the vast expansion of a programme that gives governors free rein over schools and removes local authority oversight.

Certain officials have long been uneasy about non-Christian faith schools. Back in 2005, David Bell, head of the Office for Standards in Education, warned that Islamic schools were “a threat to national identity”. But these worries have been overridden by faith schools’ apparently superior results. A 2008 study, for instance, found that 85 per cent of children from primary faith schools left with a grasp of the basics, compared with 79 per cent at non-faith schools – although organisations like the British Humanist Association challenge such findings, arguing that faith schools are able to practise a form of academic selection under the guise of choosing pupils based on religious affiliation. The “Trojan Horse” schools – which remained officially non-denominational – did not select their intake. But they still had excellent academic results in a historically underachieving area.

Now, this success seems threatened by the media circus. At a recent public meeting in Birmingham, children of different ages spoke of their fears for their future, and what it would mean for work experience, university or job applications to be associated with these schools. Shabina Bano is chair of the Parents Association at Oldknow, a primary school, which her two daughters attend. She has been active in the local campaign group Putting Birmingham School Kids First. “My daughter came home the other day and said, ‘Mum, is it wrong to be a Muslim? When I go out now, I’ll say I’m not’,” she tells me when we meet in central Birmingham.

Shabana Mahmood, who attended one of the schools investigated (Small Heath, exonerated by Ofsted), echoed these fears. “My school was found to be outstanding, but if anything had happened, I would have been ‘the Labour MP taught at an extremist school’. This is about real kids having stigma attached to them, which they will probably never shake off.”

Birmingham’s Pakistani community makes up about 13.5 per cent of the city’s population, a proportion that has risen with each census. While other ethnic minority groups have moved out of the inner-city areas they first migrated to, many Pakistanis have remained in the deprived districts around Sparkbrook and Small Heath. Pakistan itself is religiously and ethnically diverse, but the vast majority of those in Birmingham originate from Azad Kashmir and northern Punjab, mostly rural areas with limited educational opportunities. Blighted by industrial decline, Birmingham has recently undergone a recovery, with an expanding service and commercial sector. But the Pakistani community has not benefited: one in seven of the city’s inhabitants are Muslim, but they are three times more likely to be unemployed.

Residents of these areas are used to negative headlines. In 2005, one of the men who attempted to bomb the London Underground on 21 July (two weeks after the 7/7 bombings) was found hiding in a house in Small Heath. In 2010, police used £3m of government counterterrorism funds to install 200 spy cameras in Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath. The cameras, known as “Project Champion”, were dismantled in 2011 following widespread criticism that this tactic smeared an entire community as potential terrorists.

“The issue with the schools has reinforced the feeling that the upper echelons of society think all Muslims are extremists,” says Dr Imran Awan, a criminologist at Birmingham City University. “Nationally, Muslims are characterised as a suspect community. So anything to do with counterterrorism and security makes people in these areas very nervous.”

This defensiveness is evident in the response from some local campaigners to the schools allegations; many insist there was no problem, and that the Ofsted downgrading of “outstanding” schools was politically motivated. The intake at most of these schools is more than 90 per cent Muslim, mostly Pakistani, and a key defence is that they were accommodating students’ needs. Children from Muslim backgrounds are frequently failed by Britain’s education system. The main issue is not religious; nationally, around two-thirds of Muslim children live in poverty, and – as fits a wider pattern in the UK – attend struggling schools. Around 36 per cent leave school with no qualifications at all. Qualitative academic studies have found that teachers tend to view the problems facing Muslim pupils exclusively in cultural terms, identifying “intermarriage” and a lack of desire to integrate as drivers for academic underachievement, rather than noting the structural issues – poverty, overcrowded accommodation, poorly educated parents – that might affect their classroom performance.

Lee Donaghy, assistant principal at Park View, wrote in the Guardian that “accommodating their faith in our non-denominational school” was “an attempt to meet their spiritual needs as one tool to raise their achievement”. But others question whether the community as a whole really wanted to see religious customs take such prominence in their children’s schools. “There’s a due process to follow,” says Shaista Gohir, head of the Muslim Women’s Network, a national organisation headquartered in Birmingham. “I would like to see evidence of consultations. Did letters go out? You can’t go by what a few people say; every parent must have the opportunity to provide feedback.” The Clarke report suggests that “only a minority of parents” agreed that their children should follow strict religious principles at school, although most welcomed the good academic results.

Walking through Alum Rock, near Small Heath, where Park View School is located, you see how ethnically divided areas of Birmingham can be. The high-street chains of the city centre make way for halal butchers, madrassas (religious schools), Pakistani grocers, restaurants and jewellers, and Urdu or Arabic bookshops.

Many members of the community – which, three generations in, is unarguably British – feel their entire way of life is on trial. “There is conservatism in religion, and there is extremism, and the two are very different,” says Mahmood. “Legislators are looking for an easy formula – if you look a certain way and you do these things, then you are at risk of being an extremist, and we’ve got to do something about you. It’s frightening. You are commenting on a person’s individual relationship with God. That’s totally unconnected to a political and supremacist ideology.”

But while distinct from political extremism, conservative religious values can create their own pressures. Omar (not his real name) grew up in Small Heath, and is now at university in Nottingham. The school he attended until last year was not investigated, but he recognised the picture painted by reports. “I was surprised to see how controversial this Trojan Horse thing was. I thought it was the norm,” he says. “My school was technically a comprehensive secular environment, but it’s an ethnic enclave, so you grow up within that religious mentality. Some of my female friends were stigmatised for not wearing the headscarf. We had a teacher who would bring up Islamic lessons in science classes and tell boys and girls not to sit together. We had to pray five times a day. I never fitted in because at a young age I decided I didn’t want to follow the faith. There was no outlet for that.”

Yet Omar, too, is frustrated at the handling of the Trojan Horse scandal. “The emphasis on terrorism has diverted the issue. It is a bigger, fundamental, deep-rooted issue about how young people integrate themselves into contemporary British society. I do feel there is a struggle for kids growing up and finding out who they are – do they stay in their community or go out? That’s what we need to address.”

The Clarke report found strong evidence that head teachers were routinely bullied and harassed, and that governors far overstepped the mark. Gohir, who has focused on the impact on girls, speaks of a pressurised atmosphere for children. “One of the defences was that children are choosing to self-segregate by gender,” she says. “But the truth is they are scared of getting in trouble; they self-segregate because it’s expected of them, not because it’s free choice. And it’s technically a choice to wear a hijab, but in Islamic Studies lessons and assemblies, students are reminded that girls with morals wear a headscarf.”

She is clear on the implications. “This is a safeguarding issue. Staff have a duty to protect children from bullying, not to participate in it.” Yet the sensationalised response from government and media – Michael Gove’s comments about “drain[ing] the swamp” of extremism, or the Spectator’s notorious cartoon that featured a child with a Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other under the caption “taught to hate” – has helped shift the focus elsewhere.

For the children concerned, it was bewildering to see their schools spoken about in terms of national security: one Oldknow parent says his son came home in tears after another child asked why his school taught him to make bombs. Bano says she is terrified of a generation of local children losing faith in the authorities as a result of the handling of the case. It’s these children who have most to lose from poor oversight of their schools, yet the mainstream media has discussed them almost exclusively as a potential threat. “Words like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘terrorism’ have been thrown at our children,” says Bano. “They have to live with this stigma for ever.”