The Birmingham Trojan Horse affair: a very British injustice

Accusations levelled against the Park View Academy and its Trust for attempting to “Islamicise schools” fell apart for good reason, yet they continue to do damage.

John Holmwood
13 December 2017

John Mosbaugh/Flickr. CC (by)

In early 2014, the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair hit the headlines as a “plot to Islamicise schools”. This followed the publication of a letter purporting to come from one of those involved in the plot. The letter is widely regarded as a hoax, but its consequences have run on for almost four years. This has had great significance for public policies associated both with education and the government’s Prevent agenda. For example, a duty on schools “to promote fundamental British values” was adopted in November 2014, and the affair was used the following year as the primary example of ‘extremist entryism’ that would be guarded against by a new Counter Extremism Strategy.

At first, 21 schools were submitted to special Ofsted inspections, with 14 subject to further investigation by Ian Kershaw for Birmingham City Council and by Peter Clarke for the Department for Education covering a time-period of allegations from 1996 to 2014. In the end, and largely as a consequence of the Clarke Report, professional misconduct cases were brought by the National College of Teaching and Leadership (an independent agency of the Department for Education, responsible for teacher standards) against just 12 teachers, all but one directly associated with Park View Academy and its Trust. These cases collapsed in May of this year as a consequence of serious impropriety by the NCTL.

Since that embarrassment for the government, advisers close to Michael Gove and Theresa May – respectively secretary of state at the Department for Education (DfE) and home secretary responsible for Prevent when the affair blew up – have been quick to respond. Jaimie Martin, former special adviser at the DfE, has written that “it is important to note as [the teachers] were not tried for the charges, they were therefore not cleared of them”, and that “people who downplay the seriousness of Trojan Horse, claiming those involved exhibited ‘mainstream’ Islamic views, are guilty not only of stunning naivety, but of a dangerous error”.

A similar claim was made by Policy Exchange, the conservative think tank that had advised Michael Gove’s schools programme. The co-head of its security and extremism unit, Hannah Stuart, and its head of education, John David Blake, proposed that “non-disclosure of anonymous witness statements from the Clarke inquiry was described as an ‘abuse of process’, and that is deeply unfortunate, but this falls short of an exoneration. The decision to discontinue disciplinary proceedings was based on procedural grounds – not on a shortage of evidence”. Most recently, Nick Timothy, former special adviser to Theresa May, condemned a public meeting in Birmingham that was called to discuss the Trojan Horse affair. What happened in Birmingham schools has been clearly established, he argued, and the Clarke Report provided clear evidence.

A miscarriage of justice

In fact, the Clarke Report did nothing of the sort and was deeply flawed on a number of serious grounds. Like the Kershaw Report, it was organised in exactly the same terms as the original accusatory letter of a 5-step plan toward an Islamic takeover. Furthermore it failed to consider the regulatory context in which the school operated. In a book I recently published with my co-author Therese O’Toole, Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, we detail the major miscarriage of justice to which it gave rise by accusing teachers and governors of an Islamic plot and by its suppression of attempts to uncover the truth.

The Clarke Report begins with the argument that the religious ethos and practices found at Park View school might have been appropriate had it been a ‘faith school’, but instead it was a ‘secular school’. This distinction is false. All schools in England are required by law to have a daily act of collective worship and to teach religious education. Daily worship should be mainly of a Christian character (albeit non-denominational), but this can be varied if a ‘determination’ for alternative worship is sought from the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE).

Park View, a school with 98.9% of its pupils of Muslim heritage, was granted a ‘determination’ for Islamic worship in 1996, which was renewed regularly since then. It became an academy in 2012, when responsibility for determination passed to the DfE. However, the latter put in place no mechanism for renewals. In addition, the school continued to teach the SACRE-approved Birmingham religious education curriculum, despite not needing to do so after becoming an academy.

The Clarke Report also seems unaware of schools’ obligation to promote community cohesion.

The Clarke Report also seems unaware of schools’ obligation to promote community cohesion. This had been in effect since 2007 and had two strands. The first involved an emphasis on shared values (democracy, the rule of law, and religious tolerance) and the second was an address of inequalities in educational achievement. Indeed, Peter Clarke suggests that a concern for community cohesion was a form of ‘political correctness’ that prevented proper oversight and not a statutory duty on schools.

The report makes no mention of the fact that Park View had been in special measures in 1996 and that by 2012 it was in the top 14% of all schools in England for academic achievement. This was despite the fact that 72.7% of its pupils were on free school meals and just 7.5% had English as a first language. It also had a higher than average percentage of pupils with special needs. These are all parameters associated with poor educational outcomes, yet Park View had transcended them. In addition, Ofsted reports – up until the fatal report of 2014 – commended the school for how well it prepared pupils for life in modern Britain. They also praise the Islamic ethos of the school and facilities for private prayer as enabling parent and pupil integration with the school and support for its academic objectives.

Park View was also a designated National Support School. The DfE and Birmingham City Council actively encouraged it to become an academy and to sponsor two other schools that had poor academic achievements but similar pupil profiles. It was this ‘takeover’ that Clarke describes as ‘Islamification’. The report doesn’t examine the direct involvement of DfE and BCC officials, despite the incorporation of these additional schools into a multi-academy trust being precisely what is at issue. Moreover, the whole point of sponsorship under the academies programme is that the sponsoring school should introduce the policies and practices associated with its success into the other schools incorporated under its trust.

The Kershaw Report argued that governors at Park View Academy and its Trust were in breach of Nolan principles of public life, but that charge can be laid at the Clarke Report. Educational advisers to the report had previously participated in the Education Funding Agency (EFA) Review of the Trust which recommended its dissolution. Moreover, the evidence to the NCTL hearing of one such adviser about the circumstances of the EFA Review came in for special negative comment (see, paras 60, 61 and 124ff) following the disclosure of documents. These suggested that she had been less than candid in her statements about what those involved in the EFA inspection had been told of the circumstances of their visit to the trust.

The Clarke Report was also explicitly one-sided. It did not test witness statements for their veracity. When listing allegations, Clarke commented, “it is only fair to point out the Trust disputed most, if not all, of the following allegations.” (para 6.6). The misconduct cases were the only opportunity for the evidence to be questioned. This is why the failure to disclose witness statements provided to the Clarke Report was so important. Statements were taken from witnesses at the DfE and from those involved in the oversight of religious education in Birmingham that directly contradicted the claims made against the senior teachers. These were not mentioned in the Clarke Report and were deliberately obscured from the misconduct hearings.

In short, the Clarke Report does not establish evidence of the sort suggested by government supporters. Indeed, the NCTL did their best to prevent it from being subject to scrutiny. It treated it as ‘background’ rather than primary material, but it was forced into disclosure as soon as it became evident that witness statements to the misconduct cases had been based upon transcripts those witnesses had provided to the Clarke Report. This was initially denied, but then admitted. Although the case collapsed on what some are pleased to describe as a ‘technicality’, there is little doubt that the collapse meant that the Clarke Report could not be made subject to further scrutiny.

David Anderson, QC, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has recently confirmed the importance of the Prevent strategy in its original conception. However, he has also expressed serious doubts about the ‘securitising’ of community cohesion through new policies on non-violent extremism and the promotion of ‘fundamental British values’. These came into being after the Trojan Horse affair, but there can be little doubt that they were prefigured in Peter Clarke’s approach to his own inquiry. Yet, charges of ‘extremism’ formed no part of the NCTL cases against the teachers, which were all framed as ‘undue religious influence’. In our view, even the charge of undue religious influence was poorly framed.

In our book, we draw parallels with the Hillsborough affair. No lives were lost, but reputations were damaged and careers ruined on the basis of peremptory action by the authorities and a cover-up of their own involvement. It represents a key moment in multicultural Britain, involving the scapegoating of Muslims and the disregard for due process and rights. Indeed, it is itself a betrayal of the very values that teachers and governors were argued to have disavowed.

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