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Schrödinger’s Horse: an update on Birmingham schools

Much continues to be written about the alleged plot by Muslim hardliners to take over schools in Birmingham.

Whereas some are anxious to protect teachers and governors from the allegations, others seek out witnesses whose opinions and experiences appear to back up some of the claims.

Mr M. G. Khan, a governor at Saltley School, has recently described the ‘Trojan Horse’ document as a latter day ‘Zinoviev Letter’. He claims:

[I]t is being used to destabilise governing bodies in Muslim majority schools in Birmingham by galvanising Ofsted into snap inspections that would find these governing bodies unfit for governance, caricaturing them as driven by ideology rather than student needs.

This is a confusing sentence.  Is he implying that snap inspections would reveal that the governing bodies were unfit?  If so, then there clearly is a problem, and the Trojan Horse document was more than just a spiteful fabrication. He goes on.

“These allegations have included plots to overthrow heads and in the case of Saltley School, where I am a governor, the governing body has been falsely accused of banning sex education, stopping GCSE citizenship classes, forcing everyone to eat halal food – something present in schools for at least 25 years – and ultimately aiming for secession into an academy, in order to gain complete control of the school and its curriculum.

One problem with the whole Trojan Horse story is that each little element seems to require some disentangling. According to this report, the school itself acknowledges that there was indeed a switch to halal food.  Hardly the most charged aspect of the controversy, but this small apparent evasion on Khan’s part doesn’t inspire confidence.

A head teacher whose school was targeted in an alleged Jihadist plot was forced out after opposing Muslim governor plans to scrap sex education and allow only halal food, it was claimed.

On Sunday Ahson Mohammed, Saltley’s interim head teacher, confirmed halal food had been introduced at the school canteen but said the decision was based on “the make-up of the students rather than a demand from the school”.

But if the sex education and GCSE citizenship classes remain unchanged – that might indeed suggest that some of the allegations are being exaggerated, for whatever reason.  Were they removed and then reintroduced? Were they watered down? Or is Mr Khan entirely correct to assert that these accusations are quite false?

Faced with uncertainty as to just how much kick the Trojan horse has, I don’t find Mr Khan’s analysis very illuminating.  He seems annoyed by journalists’ fluent use of terms such as ‘Salafi’, and anxious about the effect this story may have on people’s perceptions of Muslims. However he has comparatively little to say about the actual substance of the allegations.

City council chief executive Mark Rogers is another unconvincing voice.  He brushes aside ‘radicalisation’, something of a straw man, but implicitly confirms (or at least does not deny) some of the allegations:

He believed “new communities” in Birmingham were simply looking for the same educational environment for their children that they would get in the country they came from.

There were certain “customs and practices” these communities wanted to see that did not always fit in with the national curriculum that exists in Britain.

They were asking “legitimate questions” about the type of schooling they wanted for their children and how that could fit in with the “liberal education system” we have in this country.

His reported avoidance of the words ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ during the interview suggests an unwillingness to engage with the allegations – even though in fact some of those who have expressed their concerns most vocally are Muslims themselves.

Local MP Khalid Mahmood is insisting that the investigation be tough and thorough.

Speaking to the Birmingham Mail, Khalid Mahmood said that he wanted a ‘thorough investigation.’ He has also stated that “people running some city schools were Salafis, hard line Muslims, who may be trying to import their views into classrooms and the day to day running of the school. But the majority of kids are Sunni mainstream Muslims. It is an attempt at indoctrination.”

I sympathise with Assed Baig’s protective feelings about a school (Park View) which does indeed seem to perform strongly on many fronts.  He is right to remind readers that some allegations (such as the claim Anwar Awlaki was praised in assembly) haven’t been confirmed.  I don’t agree with everything he says (I rarely do) but it’s worth engaging with some of his points:

BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme did a report on the school. A journalist accosted students and asked them if they were forced to wear the hijab- you know, because this school is run by the Taliban, where every woman must cover themselves in order to appease their fastidious schoolmasters. This biased and loaded piece of so-called journalism also claimed that there were no pictures of girls and boys together in the school. The reporter was either blind or deliberately neglected to mention the fact that the school demonstrably displays pictures of boys and girls together and that several people have refuted her claim- but why let facts get in the way when you are on a mission to prove that there is a plot, however low your journalistic standards have to sink in order to do this?

I do not have much hope in the Ofsted report either. I have already spoken to parents and was shocked by the questions that Ofsted and Department of Education investigators have been asking students and teachers. “Are you forced to wear that scarf,” they asked one girl who was wearing a long skirt, “Isn’t it very difficult for you to move around?”. One teacher was asked, “Are you homophobic?”, because all Muslims must be homophobic, right?

Several former teachers have offered personal testimony about experiences which chime with (though do not necessarily confirm) the alleged Trojan Horse agenda.  Erica Connor’s case seems particularly noteworthy as it was backed up by an independent tribunal and she was awarded £400,000:

Today, she is still consoled by the words of the judge who awarded her compensation after a five-year battle through the courts.

In a damning account of the activists who forced this wonderful teacher from her post, he declared: ‘They sought to monopolise the governors’ body to impose their own agenda… which was to convert New Monument to an Islamic faith school.’

‘It’s a letter that makes me realise nothing has changed in our schools,’ she tells us with a sad smile. ‘Muslim extremists used an identical strategy to get rid of me and nearly ruined my life.’

At the height of the vicious campaign to oust petite, impeccably dressed Erica as head of New Monument school in Woking, Surrey, she faced vile abuse from school governors and was smeared as a racist hater of Islam in a parents’ petition.

She was even advised by police to carry a personal alarm in case she was physically attacked.

Further significant testimony has been provided by Mohammed Zabar, whose daughter attends Oldknow Academy:

Mr Zabar said that at a meeting with Mr Akbar and other teachers on Friday afternoon, he and several other Muslim parents raised strong concerns about events at the school, including the anti-Christian chanting in assembly led by Asif Khan, the Arabic teacher. After initially denying his involvement, both Mr Khan and the acting head confirmed it, Mr Zabar said.

“Another Muslim parent asked what had happened about Christmas,” Mr Zabar said. “Mr Akbar said the Christmas festivities didn’t go ahead because the children weren’t getting good enough grades. The parent replied, so why do you take them out in term time to do Umrah [the Muslim lesser pilgrimage to Mecca] then?”

Another Muslim parent complained that his calls and emails of concern were never answered by the school.

Mr Zabar said the claims of “racism” and “Islamophobia” made by Oldknow and Park View against their critics were “insulting”.

He said: “The charge of Islamophobia is sometimes bandied around to deter people from approaching this issue. But there are many Muslim parents raising concerns and this is not about religion.

It’s almost inevitable, with a story like this, that people are going to find what they are looking for, and perhaps blank out data which doesn’t fit the agenda (such as pictures of girls and boys together at Park View).  But other concerns – the teacher who ridiculed Christians is just one little example – have not been answered or denied.  There may not be a conspiracy but that doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for concern.