From ‘Trojan Horse’ to ‘Putting Birmingham School Kids First’: the community fights back
Rick Hatcher is the author of this comprehensive analysis of the ‘Trojan Horse’ in Birmingham. It has been written as a personal contribution towards an understanding of the events. Rick is a member of the Birmingham NUT Executive, Birmingham Left Unity and Chair of the Birmingham branch of the Campaign for State Education. He is also an education researcher.
It isn’t easy to write a report on the so-called Trojan Horse affair: the issues are complex, the evidence claims are contested, new developments are taking place almost daily, and although I am involved in the campaign (including as a member of Birmingham NUT Exec) I am not party to the discussions and meetings that are taking place within the local Muslim community.
The affair first hit the headlines in March with leaks in the Telegraph and Sunday Times of what purport to be strategy documents outlining ways of ousting head teachers in Muslim areas of Birmingham in order to establish schools run on Islamic principles. The documents suggest that the strategy, called Operation Trojan Horse, should be used in Bradford and Manchester as well as Birmingham.
The press reports led in April to two rapid responses by Gove, based on a narrative of Muslim extremism and a potential link to terrorism. He announced that Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, would order inspections of 21 schools in the area, all with high Muslim populations. Some schools were inspected twice within a few weeks, first a Section 8 inspection, which is not a full inspection but one focused on a specific issue, usually safeguarding. In those schools they were followed up by full Section 5 inspections.
The result was that six schools were put in ‘special measures’, the lowest inspection grade, one of which was a primary school already was already in ‘special measures’ from a previous separate inspection. Of the five schools at the centre of the affair three are academies run by the Park View Educational Trust, which comprises two secondary schools, Park View itself and Golden Hillock, and one primary school, Nansen. The other two schools are Saltley, a local authority secondary school, and Oldknow, a free-standing academy. The PVET has also been inspected by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and a report published.
The second response was to set up an inquiry led by Peter Clarke, the former National Co-ordinator for Counter Terrorism, a clearly provocative act.
Gove has already used the inspection reports as a lever to impose a succession of changes on the national school system: no-notice inspections; a duty to ‘promote British values’; the exclusion of ‘suspect’ Muslims from school governing bodies (which could be used against not only religiously conservative Muslims but those, for example, supporting Palestine and the anti-war movement).
Gove’s 2006 book Celsius 7/7 indicates his long-standing belief in the threat posed by global Islamic fundamentalism. More immediate motivations would be to recover lost electoral ground by out-bidding UKIP on racism and to bolster his support on the Tory Right. It is a carefully engineered racist political offensive designed to associate Muslims with religious extremism and terrorism, for which Gove knew he could rely on a relentless tide of Islamophobia from the Tory press. It should be seen in the wider context of the rise of racism in Europe that Francois Sabado explains, and the government’s attempt to exploit it in England, linking the international, the national and the local:
‘This general upsurge results from the rise of nationalism in a situation of economic crisis and historic weakening of the workers’ movement. Social identity weakens in relation to national identity, class conflict gives way to the “ethnicisation” of social relations, racism infects mass sectors of the popular classes – “it is easier to attack an immigrant than a banker”.’ (A Europe adrift and an earthquake in France, International Viewpoint, 16 June).
What has made this racist political offensive possible is another policy in the government’s neo-liberal toolkit: the unprecedented centralised dictatorial power of Gove over the school system. The instrument he has used is Ofsted as an arm of government policy. It is widely agreed that they were sent in with an agenda: find evidence of religious extremism (See for example the 20 questions Tim Brighouse asks in the Guardian, 13 June).
The Prevent strategy
In the inspections Ofsted used a key policy tool as a stick to beat the schools with – the Prevent strategy, a counter-terrorism policy first introduced by Labour in 2008 and beefed up by the Coalition in 2011. Its target is ‘what we regard as the key threat and risk to the security of the UK – terrorism associated with Al Qa’ida. We know that Al Qa’ida has sought to provide a theological justification for terrorism.’ (p64). ‘We regard Prevent work with children and with schools as an important part of the strategy.’ (p69). There have been various initiatives since 2008, including Children’s Safeguarding Boards and work by ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) with schools.
The Prevent policy document has a section on the curriculum. The requirements here are actually quite unexceptionable. ‘All schools are required by law to teach a broad and balanced curriculum’ and ‘to promote community cohesion’. However, the new instruction from Gove for schools to ‘promote British values’ is much more ideologically prescriptive. But the document also says ‘where political or controversial issues are brought to pupils’ attention, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.’ Ironically, since promoting ‘British values’ is both political and controversial it follows that schools must offer opposing views, which really would be education for critical understanding. The principal barrier is another policy of Gove, the enormous pressure of the exam-driven curriculum, squeezing out time for debate and citizenship education.
Ofsted didn’t find evidence of ‘extremism’. But this isn’t surprising – even the government’s Prevent document itself warns against assuming there is a significant problem:
‘We regard Prevent work with children and with schools as an important part of the strategy. But this work needs to be proportionate. It must not start from a misplaced assumption that there is a significant problem that needs to be resolved. We have seen some evidence of very limited radicalisation of children by extremist or terrorist groups. … these issues must be kept in perspective.’ (p69)
Furthermore, as Birmingham City Council says:
‘It is important to note that whilst this element of safeguarding is already addressed in the Ofsted framework for school inspections, it has only very recently in this context assumed the significance that Ofsted has now given to it. Up to this point, the Council was unaware of any other inspections that have reported specifically on a school’s need to take certain or greater precautions against radicalism and extremism.’ (BCC 9 June, [Safeguarding against extremism]
In other words, Gove sent in Ofsted to find the schools guilty. Ofsted couldn’t find evidence of ‘extremism’, but they used the Prevent strategy as the stick to beat the schools with for not doing more to inoculate children against it – including a nursery school! This of course is an open-ended criterion against which many schools would fall short if they were inspected in the same way – but of course they aren’t, only those that Gove chose to apply it to.
Birmingham’s Labour Council
How has Birmingham’s Labour Council responded to the Trojan Horse claims and Gove’s attack? The Trojan Horse document was actually in the hands of the Council in November 2013, and rumours of malpractice by Muslim governors in a number of Birmingham schools, mainly concerning the removal of a number of headteachers, had been circulating in the city for years. Tim Boyes, a secondary head, reported it to the DfE in 2010. But the local authority had taken little or no action.
On 9 June the Council published a 4-page response. Essentially it accepted the Ofsted framing of the situation and committed the local authority to working with the DfE, including on academisation and changing sponsors. In that context it proposed a number of measures, including drawing up action plans with the local authority schools in question, improving recruitment and training for governors, and making closer links with academies through reintroducing an induction programme open to all new headteachers including academies and free schools, and appointing school improvement link officers for academies and free schools – but without specifying what powers they would have, if any.
The Council has also set up its own Inquiry. The remit of the Review Group is as follows:
‘To review the findings of the Chief Advisor – and any other reports that may be made available by DfE, Ofsted or others – with a view to publishing a report (in July 2014) that, insofar as is possible, explains the authenticity or otherwise of the Trojan Horse allegations and makes recommendations to the city council and any other relevant bodies to ensure effective future governance and safeguarding arrangements in all schools.’
The Review Group has 15 members: 4 councillors , the director of children’s services, 2 MPs, 2 headteachers, 1 police, 1 Birmingham Central Mosque, 1 bishop, 1 representative of all headteachers’ professional associations, 1 Birmingham Governors Network, 1 National Governors Association. Of the 15 4 are Muslims and 5 are women
What is striking by their absence is any representatives of parents, or of the local community, or of teachers and other school workers and their unions.
What is also striking is the absence of any public criticism of Gove’s attack by the Council and any public support for the community’s campaign against it. The Cabinet member for education, and the chair of the education Scrutiny Committee, have remained silent and invisible.
Equally damning is the failure of Tristram Hunt to offer a vigorous challenge to the government’s attack. The problems in the schools only blew up because of the government’s policies on academies and local authorities. Yet he has deliberately failed to give any commitment to restore a monitoring and interventionist role for local authorities, as the Local Government Association has recently called for. He has been more concerned about scoring points about the dispute between Gove and May. And of course he has not visited Birmingham to show solidarity with the community.
On the horizon is the threat of another attack by Gove: to privatise the whole Birmingham school system and the education department of the Council. There is a serious risk that Gove, who has along with Wilshaw had Birmingham in his sights for a long time, will seize this opportunity to hand over the whole system to one or more private companies or trusts.
The growth of the anti-Gove campaign in Birmingham
The Trojan Horse affair has had a devastating effect on the children and young people at the schools under attack, their teachers and parents, and the wider Muslim community. The community feels they are being picked on as Muslims and labelled as extremists. Parents and pupils have been harassed daily by the press at the school gate. They are worried about the reputation of their schools – for example, in the eyes of future employers. Teachers who have been subjected to biased inspections and told they are failing are worried about the effect on future job applications.
I’m now going to give a roughly chronological account of the emergence of the campaign of opposition, bearing in mind that I have not been party to many developments within the Muslim community.
The first sign of a public campaign by the community seems to have been in early June with the formation of a parents’ campaign at Oldknow, a primary academy which is one of the five schools put in special measures. This included a demonstration outside the school by parents with printed tee-shirts and, according to the Guardian (9 June), the entrance hall decorated with children’s handprints on paper plates with the slogan Hands Off Our School.
It seems likely that the SWP had been involved in the Oldknow campaign and on 11 June there was a meeting of about 100 people about the attack on the Muslim schools organised by the SWP – though not by name – in conjunction with the Oldknow parents, under the banner of Hands Off Our Schools. The main speaker was the Birmingham NUT president (in personal capacity), an SWP member, who made a powerful speech.
The debate in Birmingham NUT and Birmingham LU
The following day, June 12, there was a BANUT Exec meeting. The Exec had first discussed the Trojan Horse allegations on 3 April and passed a resolution opposing Islamophobia, expressing concern ‘
about the lack of democratic accountability and the dangers inherent in this as a result of the Government policies in undermining local authorities and allowing a free for all takeover of our schools’ and urging the local authority to investigate the allegations. At the 12 June Exec there was substantial agreement but there was one major point of difference. The same point of difference arose in the discussion two days later at the Birmingham Left Unity branch meeting on 14 June and I want to report it here in some detail because it represents an important difference of strategy among the left.
At the Exec meeting a motion from a member of RS21 and a member of the SWP proposed to focus exclusively on the Islamophobia issue and not acknowledge problems in the schools. Essentially three arguments were put forward, and similar ones by Socialist Action supporters at the Left Unity meeting. First, that the evidence contained in the Ofsted and EFA reports should be rejected because of its source and motivation. Second, that to raise any problems in the schools would dilute the campaign and distract it from its main task: to oppose Gove. Third, that these problems occur in many schools and aren’t specific to those under attack.
SR comrades put forward an alternative position at both the BANUT Exec and Left Unity meetings. We agree that opposing Gove has of course to be the main thrust. But we also recognise that there is evidence of discriminatory practice in the five schools which have been put into special measures. Some of that evidence is in the reports by Ofsted and by the Education Funding Agency. Of course, we don’t accept uncritically what the government reports say. But neither do we reject all they contain out of hand because of where they come from. We make a critical judgement as best we can on the available evidence from the reports and independent evidence from teachers and parents. I will give one indicative example from a television news clip. The interviewer asked a Muslim governor at Park View, the school at the centre of the attack, if it was a good school? ‘Yes, a very good school,’ he replied. ‘Is there segregation there?’ the interviewer asked. ‘Oh yes, we keep the boys away from the girls. Segregation, that’s a good thing’ was the answer.
This example indicates the problem with the slogan of Hands Off Our Schools. It is politically ambivalent. There is a range of religious views within the Muslim community from conservative to liberal, and Hands Off Our Schools can mean to some leave us alone to pursue discriminatory practices.
In our view the evidence reveals three main issues
a) The role of governors. There are complaints by staff members at all five schools that the governing body interferes inappropriately in the day-to-day running of the school. One issue of particular concern concerns the lack of fairness of some recruitment and promotion practices by governors.
b) The role of school management. There are also complaints by staff members of unfair treatment by school management.
c) Curriculum and equality issues. There is evidence of a denial of children’s entitlement to a broad, balanced and socially just education. They include gender segregation between and within classes (which is only acceptable for sex education and some PE activities), a restricted curriculum depriving pupils of some subject areas (such as art and music) or issues within them (such as sexual orientation and relationships) or biased treatment of them (such as evolution).
To ignore or downplay these issues, or to fail to put forward an effective strategy to deal with them, including within the community campaign – though not of course as a precondition for supporting it – would be to collude in the perpetuation of injustice. It would also weaken the campaign against the government’s attacks by making it vulnerable to the criticism of failing to acknowledge and act on serious failings.
We agree that these issues exist in many other schools in various ways, but we shouldn’t use that as a cop-out from tackling them where they have come to the fore here and now. On the contrary, tackling them now in a sensitive way within the community and addressing it in the schools can act as a catalyst for other schools to do so too. We see it as an opportunity not just to defend the schools against Gove but to contribute to a discussion between the community and the teachers – and the local authority – about what a common socially just vision of education might look like. That debate is already beginning and it will continue.
In the discussion two of the BANUT officers said that evidence from members in the schools confirmed the SR view. The vote at the BANUT Exec was 11 for the SR position with 5 against, all SWP or ex-SWP. At the Left Unity meeting on 14 June the SR position was carried with 14 in favour and only the 3 Socialist Action supporters against.
The Tories have made governors unaccountable
Up to now we have seen how the attack on Birmingham schools is the result of the combination of two Tory policies: racism against Muslims and Ofsted as an arm of government. We must now add a third Tory policy to explain what has happened in the schools: local operational autonomy for schools – i.e. for governors and heads. This applies not just to academies, which are outside local authorities, but also to local authority schools as a result of the drastic reduction in or termination of the powers and resources of local authorities to monitor and intervene where necessary. The consequence is that some governing bodies have been able to interfere in the responsibilities of teachers and impose unacceptable practices, whether from a conservative religious standpoint or not, on the schools. As Tim Brighouse, ex-CEO of Birmingham, said:
‘So great have been the recent cuts in local authority expenditure that Birmingham and many other local authorities have neither the resources nor sufficient senior and experienced staff to carry out their role effectively. Worse, the arrival of academies and free schools has created an open season for lay people and professionals keen to pursue their own eccentric ideas about schooling: and when trust or governor vacancies occur, some perpetuate the very English tradition of inviting friends to join them. When the community is white it doesn’t cause much comment. In mono-ethnic east Birmingham, however, it is seen as a Muslim plot to expose pupils to an undefined “extremism”.’ (Guardian, 17 June)
Putting Birmingham School Kids First
The most important new development is the formation of a campaign with the title ‘Putting Birmingham School Kids First’. The leading figure in it is Salma Yaqoob, the ex-Respect leader and ex-Birmingham councillor. She has huge credibility in the local community which has enabled her to draw together people with a range of views into a broad and inclusive campaign. The campaign is being launched with a public meeting, likely to be very large, on 26 June with speakers including Salma herself, Tim Brighouse, Shabana Mahmood (a Birmingham MP), and Kevin Courtney (NUT deputy general secretary). The manifesto of the campaign is as follows:
PUTTING BIRMINGHAM SCHOOL KIDS FIRST
The central allegation, that there was an organized plot to radicalise school children in a handful of Birmingham schools, remains unproven. What the OFSTED reports show is some governance issues in some schools.
In order to fix these problems we need greater clarity about the issues these investigations have revealed. This needs to be done without the sensationalist references to extremism and national security that we have seen so far which have caused confusion and concern across the city and country. Many people now believe that their children’s educational potential, achievement and well-being is being threatened by politicians, who wish to be seen as ‘tough’ on Muslims.
This approach has been deeply unhelpful, hurtful and insulting, and most importantly could prevent us finding the solutions we need to help school children in Birmingham.
The Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign aims to:
1. Make sure that any issues of governance within Birmingham schools are fixed and fixed fast.
2. Challenge the false and divisive allegation that this is a problem of systematic radicalization, extremism or terrorism.
We will work with anyone who is willing to put the interests of our children first. But the starting point has to be a true understanding of the problem. Many people have serious concerns about the impartiality of OFSTED and feel there was a climate of fear surrounding their investigations. But even their 21 investigations did not reveal a link to radicalisation. We share the view of West Midlands Chief Constable that the appointment of a counter-terrorism expert to investigate our schools was a provocative and unhelpful move.
The Muslim community is no different to any other faith community in having a spectrum of opinions, from liberal to conservative, on what is the correct balance between secular and religious values in the provision of education. Instead of debating these issues openly, the government has taken the completely inappropriate approach of linking this with the prevention of terrorism.
Workable solutions will not appear overnight. Trust has broken down between those who should be working together. Our role in the journey is to provide parents, staff, pupils and governors a strong forum within which to voice their opinions about the issues raised over the last few months and to give their views about whether proposed solutions will work – in a safe and transparent space.
We want solutions that ensure our school children receive a top quality education that prepares them to be engaged and active citizens. There are already many cases of outstanding practice in Birmingham, these need to be acknowledged and adopted more widely. We are proud that Birmingham is among the youngest and most multi-cultural cities in the world and stand by its people in all their diversity.
Signed: Tim Brighouse (Former Education Commissioner), Shabana Mahmood MP, Christine Blower (NUT General Secretary), Salma Yaqoob (Convenor), Dr Chris Allen (Birmingham University), Revd Ray Gaston, (Anglican Priest), Father Oliver Coss, and many others….
This statement reflects the position SR has been putting forward and is one that SR is happy to give its full support to. Around 50 people attended the campaign organising meeting on 19 June and while there are some who deny any evidence of problems the large majority agreed with Salma that there are ‘serious issues in some schools’. For example, one Asian parent spoke of bullying and gross mismanagement, which had been made an Islamic issue. She also gave the example of a school phoning parents to say that ‘your daughter was talking to a boy today’.
The formulation ‘some governance issues in some schools’ is imprecise, and at this stage that is the right strategy. It allows those who deny it in their school to say it’s only happening in other schools, and so still be part of the campaign. It avoids prematurely excluding them and splitting the community while the statement makes clear that the campaign will work to identify and tackle unacceptable practices.
Other parents’ meetings
Separately from the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign a meeting of 200 parents of Park View academy took place on 15 June, called by local MP Liam Byrne and Labour councillors. Liam Byrne no doubt has his own agenda but it is significant that the parents called for the Park View governors to resign and demanded not a replacement sponsor but a new governing body to be elected by parents to draw up an action plan and collaborate with other schools. Another meeting of 150 parents took place at Golden Hillock academy, one of the three academies in the Park View Trust, on 21 June. I suspect it too was organised by Byrne. Parents passed a vote of confidence in favour of the headteacher, staff and governors, but voted against the Park View Trust.
The 26 June ‘Putting Birmingham School Kids First’ rally and after
The public meeting is likely to be large. LU supporters will be there supporting it with their leaflet. The meeting will be a springboard for other initiatives by the PBSKF campaign. Here, very briefly, are some of the policy ideas SR supporters will be contributing to the campaign.
No to academy takeover
Gove’s solution for the five schools in special measures is academy takeover. Four of them are academies already and he will hand them over to different ‘sponsors’ to run, along with the fifth school, a local authority school. His prescription is more of the same medicine that has caused the disease. We say no to any academy takeover of these and other schools under attack. If there are problems they should be addressed within Birmingham by collaborative support from other schools – a network already exists – coordinated and steered by the local authority, and in dialogue with parents and community.
For a new vision and plan of action by the schools, their teachers and parents and students, in partnership with the local authority and the community
The local authority’s Review needs to be opened up into a democratic and inclusive Public Inquiry with teachers and the community leading to the creation of a shared inspiring socially just vision for education in the area and an action plan to put it into practice. If the local authority refuses to hold a Public Inquiry then we believe that it should be organised by the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign, involving the community itself, the school unions and other relevant bodies.
No to any takeover or privatisation of Birmingham local authority
For an end to Gove’s governance experiment: restore and democratise local authorities and reintegrate academies into them
This is a key demand on Labour as the general election approaches. (See my article in the current SR journal.)
For the abolition of Ofsted in its present form and for a new system independent of government combining evaluation and support with strong local involvement
Again, a key demand on Labour.
Richard Hatcher, 23 June 2014