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The Trojan Horse Story

20/5/2014: The "Trojan Horse" Story

Once upon a time, there were some Muslims, in a big city in the UK, called Birmingham.

They weren’t part of a single organisation or even viewpoint or school of thought, but had been, in the main, born and educated in Britain, and had high aspirations for their children and community.

Around that time, there was a real shortage of governors in the inner city areas populated by Muslim families. Worse, the governors who were in place were in a few cases ineffective at holding the schools to account. Some of the leaders had low aspirations for the community they served, and the results reflected this. Some schools were shockingly poor; at Park View in Alum Rock, for example, the numbers attaining 5 GCSEs with English and Maths at Grade C+ - the minimum needed for meaningful further education – were in single digits – 4% in 1996 gained 5 GCSEs – and that figure didn’t even include English and Maths. At Oldknow Junior in Small Heath, in 1996, barely 16% of pupils were making SATs level 4 in English at the end of Year 6, and only 10% made this basic level in Mathematics. Encouraged by the national and local government to participate and fulfil their civic duty, and concerned by underachievement, low expectations, and in some cases, incidents of embedded racism on local schools, increasing numbers of Muslims became school governors.

School governors are not paid, so the work done was entirely voluntary. It was difficult too. Governors were in some cases treated with suspicion and marginalised. Trying to change a failing organisation in any sector means that some people – preferring the status quo – will become disgruntled. But through strains and stresses, and opposition and even outright racism, governors and sincere school leaders and staff persisted with improvement. Their aim; first and foremost, was to increase educational achievement. After all, this would give hope and secure citizenship to a community with high levels of unemployment, crime, and disenfranchisement from society. Many governors were concerned about small sections of the community who were falling into extremism, and hoped that by giving the children a solid education and the opportunity to reach higher education or meaningful employment, they would have played a part in tackling this evil.

School governors must also safeguard the welfare of children, and being from the same faith and cultural background, these governors were well placed to cater sympathetically for their pupils’ needs. Some recognised that forcing Muslim pupils to participate in a daily act of Christian worship, was unfair and could alienate and confuse them, so in some schools, with the support and understanding of the head teacher, determinations were applied for, via correct legal channels, to ensure that the required daily act of worship could be broadly Islamic in nature. Some pupils requested prayer facilities – as practising Muslims pray five times a day, and one of these prayers falls in the school day, especially in the shorter days of winter. These were provided for the relatively small number of pupils who wished to use them. Although some schools had banned hijab before, the wearing of the hijab became more prevalent among school-aged girls as the community in general rediscovered their faith.

Then the new idea of ‘Extended schools’ was championed, with all schools being strongly encouraged to work with outside agencies and also develop outreach themselves, to cater for their communities, for parents, and to make the school premises available out of school hours for enrichment activities. Some schools, mindful that some local madrassas were providing an Islamic studies education that was possibly narrow and poorly delivered, offered a school-based alternative, with vetted and trained teachers and assistants, and a curriculum designed to help children to learn about their faith and position as a British Muslim in the twenty-first century.

When the requirement for schools to teach a modern foreign language at Key Stage 2 (Junior phase) was introduced, the majority of schools across the country consulted parents and took into account the results of questionnaires. In inner city Birmingham, there was some concern from school leaders and governors about introducing a European language into schools and communities where the children really needed more focussed support on English grammar and vocabulary. When the parent body overwhelmingly requested Arabic as a modern foreign language in these schools – a language the majority of Muslim children of all ethnic groups already had experience of – it was decided to go ahead with this. After all, Arabic is an economically and politically important language, spoken by a great many countries in our increasingly interconnected world.

Anyway, the combined efforts of many hard working school leaders and governors – both Muslim and non-Muslim – began to make a huge difference in many schools. Park View and Oldknow, mentioned above, became Ofsted graded ‘Outstanding’ with exceptionally high results. At Park View Academy, in 2013, 75%  of pupils gained 5 GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and Maths, despite pupils arriving in the school significantly below expected levels of attainment - this score that even put them ahead of schools in neighbouring leafy Solihull. At Oldknow Academy in 2013, 81% of pupils scores level 4 or above, again significantly higher than the average for Birmingham or England. They are only two examples. But for those school leaders who were left with poorly performing schools, limping badly in comparison, every success from these schools was a personal blow. Their governors and parents were beginning to ask questions and it was no longer good enough to justify poor attainment by the high percentage of economically disadvantaged, ethnic minority children they served. Jealously was never well disguised as some head teachers began to try to vilify and even isolate the successful schools. Fearing for the position, they attempted to gain power over their governing bodies, placing close friends and supporters around them.

Around this time, Muslims were joining the teaching profession in larger numbers. Most would tell stories of finding it harder to gain employment and promotion, or even trust, because of their faith, but some were appointed  on merit and became school leaders at various levels, too. But Muslim school staff were still – percentage wise - nowhere near representative of the number of Muslim pupils in schools in the city.

Schools are big and complicated entities. It is, in fact, relatively common in all areas in the UK for there to be some conflict within them, and there are occasionally misunderstandings or even unfairness regarding personnel. Dealing with a grievance between a head teacher and the chair of governors is probably a monthly occurrence, unfortunately, for most local authorities.  These areas are usually dealt with in a fair and dispassionate manner by the Local Authority (whose services are in many cases still bought in by academies), unions, external support services, and so on.

What led to the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter being written was unknown at the time. It was worded oddly, and to local Muslims, education staff and the police, was clearly inauthentic. It purported to be from one extremist in Birmingham – to another in Bradford, explaining a ‘game-plan’ to oust head teachers and ‘take over’ schools. The holes in it – such as the mention of ‘forcing’ out a head recently who had actually left her post two decades ago (and was Muslim!) were made clear by many. It was an unsigned, undated document of no veracity. But it lit up a fire that had been, for decades, smouldering away and igniting in bursts in Birmingham and the nation at large – the groundswell of Islamophobia and racism. Nobody who has walked or driven past a ‘Saracen’s Head’ or ‘Turk’s Head’ pub could deny that the ‘clash of civilisations’ between West and East is an ancient one indeed. It was hoped that civilisation had progressed beyond such raw prejudice, but that appears not to be the case yet in some quarters. It is difficult to know how widespread anti-Muslim prejudice is in the population – one tries not to go by lurid internet and media comments – but the apparent support for ‘anti-immigration’ parties has surprised many.

The presence of Muslims in schools as pupils, staff and governors, seemed to have upset and disturbed some school staff and leaders. Paranoia against ‘the other’ remains part of the human psyche, from the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages, to the more recent horrors of McCarthy-ism.

While recognising the letter as a malicious hoax, local authority officers, councillors, members of parliament and local head teachers and staff, still began queuing up to tell the media of their encounters with the extremist fifth column. The rich opportunity of financial compensation galvanised yet others to act. Many thousands of fraudulent insurance claims are thrown out yearly on Birmingham’s roads. Yet when similar unfounded moneymaking claims were made in schools, they were taken extremely seriously.

One head teacher noted that she felt as if she was being forced out by Muslim governors and parents who had requested that their sons and daughters (many, in Year 5 and 6, will have already reached puberty) be afforded the dignity of separate changing facilities. The school was advised, as many others do, to allow the boys to change in one room and girls in another, or to place a simple piece of cloth across the room as a screen. But the head had persisted in insisting that girls must undress next to the boys, prompting surprisingly polite dismay from the community. Feted by the press, she was held up as an example of the dastardly plot at work. Another came forward – in a number of articles - to complain that he believed that Islamist  governors were asking difficult questions at meetings and repeatedly slashing his car tyres. Nothing further has been heard about the almost laughable allegations of criminal damage against middle-aged professionals. One member of staff at another primary school went to the Sunday Times to complain that the school she worked at had been ‘Islamised’. The evidence? She had overheard a Muslim governor saying, ‘Assalamu alaikum’ (peace be with you) in school.

Quite which forces were at work here are still unclear, but as with any good plot, many were from within the Muslim community itself. A relatively recent WhatsApp group had been set up to discuss education, and a wide variety of Muslims, practising and non-practising, were added. The discussions centred on a shared interest in education (and, as with most groups of this kind, jokes and cricket updates). With the transcripts leaked to the media by a Muslim member of the group, who had fallen out with others, it acquired a new sinister meaning – as evidence that a secret underground network of Muslims was indeed in place in Birmingham. Members were ‘outed’ in the media and their private messages taken out of context and sensationalised. The biggest dowse of petrol to fan the flames was provided by a Muslim Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood, who vociferously agreed that a ‘Salafi/Wahabbi’ takeover of the Birmingham education system was underway. Not realising that the purported ringleaders had more of a Sufi background, or even that the new generation of Muslims were moving away from such labels, his wildly repeated assertions were met with derision by Muslims – but absolute acceptance by some others. His membership of the Henry Jackson society – with Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove also a key figure - was made public soon after. The associate director, Douglas Murray, had publicly expressed his vision of ‘making life for Muslims in Europe as difficult as possible’, and he was on his way to achieving this, in part.

A tiny number of Muslim parents came forward too, with lurid claims which have since been categorically denied by the schools involved. One was afforded a whole Sunday Times article for his sadness that his wish for his daughter to learn French had not been granted as the school in question taught Arabic. No mention was made of the democratic decision that had been taken by the vast majority of parents. Despite schools holding celebrations, special meals, and exchanging of cards at Christmas, the fact that some did not have the traditional nativity play prompted media cries of ‘Christmas being cancelled’.

As the media hysteria hit new highs, four different investigations were announced. Mr Gove, dismissive of Birmingham’s local investigations, personally sent Peter Clark, former counter-terrorism officer, to the city. The news was undoubtedly a shock for the very Muslims under investigation – who had tried so selflessly to do their civic duty and were now equated with terrorists. A blanket of fear descended and many were left unable to answer back, blinking as though they were rabbits in headlights. National political spats over education policy took over the arena as plans were laid to remove at least part of Birmingham Local Authority. With European parliament elections underway and national elections in a year’s time, politicians from the coalition and opposition tried to court public opinion by being seen as tough on Muslims working in schools. 

Simultaneously, Ofsted arrived in the city to conduct dozens of inspections. These were described as harrowing by even non-Muslim head teachers. Schools  judged Outstanding barely a year ago (the highest grade) were told they would be placed in Special Measures (the lowest grade) because they did not have ‘Prevent’ training in place and had not been educating the children on homosexuality. Children and teachers were aggressively lambasted for their religious belief and views – with girls being questioned about why they wore a headscarf and teachers being attacked for not having taught their 8-year-old pupils what lesbianism was. Inspectors routinely attacked the teaching of Arabic as a modern foreign language – although it had never been a problem before – and asked about why urinals were not installed and why schools had so many washing facilities. Some pupils went home in tears. Leaders and staff were in most cases, spoken to so aggressively, it felt almost surreal. Leaders were told that they had to stop listening to their community. The National Association of Headteachers, having taken up the Trojan horse narrative and launched legal claims against a number of Muslim governors, stopped supporting Muslim head teachers who were affected.  Muslim governors felt afraid and unsure where to turn. Some individually resigned out of fear of the impact of their lives and families. One whole governing body resigned together. The inspection findings were leaked to the right-wing media, who reported with glee on the demise of schools with exceptional  academic attainment, to the worst grading of ‘Special Measures’ due to their failure to combat extremism. Schools were told that they ‘had the capacity to become Islamic’ and that was a damning indictment indeed.

But then sincere leaders and governors began to speak out again. Small voices, few in number, and but they did have some impact on the blaze of hatred. Some media outlets began to investigate and allow those who had been implicated to answer accusations fairly. Social media was used to discuss the unfair behaviour of Ofsted and some sections of the media.  Park View Academy released a detailed media statement and video. Ofsted and the Secretary of state were undeterred, though. Continuing their narrative, schools in other cities were inspected and in one Muslim faith school in Luton, parents finally stood up and prevented Ofsted’s second day of inspection due to the routinely aggressive way in which children were questioned about their attitudes towards homosexuality. As this became a central tenet of the ‘investigation’, other schools with majority Muslim pupils quickly began to defensively plaster their walls with pro-homosexual posters and incorporate discussion on this into their curriculum. On the premise that the Muslim community were now criminalised and Muslim pupils always potentially on the verge of terror offences, ‘Prevent’ training to deal with Muslim pupils, was hastily arranged too.

Then… what happened next in my story? I will leave that one up to you. Many ordinary, hardworking and sincere Muslims will be interviewed by the investigators and we don’t yet know how intimidating that process will be. Investigations will now, we are told, spread beyond Birmingham to any city or town where there are Muslim populations, and therefore, presumably, Muslim governors and school staff. We do not know whether more stringent procedures and hardships will be set in place by investigators or the media, to attack individuals believed to be behind a ‘plot’. What we do know for certain is that in June, Ofsted reports on the Birmingham schools ‘involved’ will be published, placing a large number of schools, some of them amazingly successful ones, into their ‘inadequate’ category. Schools will be dejectedly forced to remove the ‘Outstanding’ banners from their buildings and letterheads and relay the news to incredulous parents. Removal of the hardworking governors and in most cases, school leaders, will be recommended. These will need to be replaced by others deemed more sympathetic to government agendas. At around the same time, the results of the many investigations in Birmingham will be published.

As a community – and I refer to Muslims and non-Muslims here who are committed to excellence and inclusion – we don’t have a great deal of control of the future. But one thing we can control is our response. The Henry Jackson Society recently studied with interest, the reaction of Muslims in Denmark to the banning of halal meat. The hope was that the Muslims there would react with relative indifference and quietly restrict or change their diet to meet with the ideals imposed on them. What will Muslim parents, organisations and the community make of these changes? If they do little, this may well be seen as a green light to marginalise and intimidate them further. If they stand in unity, and refuse to allow popular and successful schools to be taken over, they could well positively change the entire course of the future of Muslims in the UK. 


Written by a West Midlands parent and governor