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Birmingham’s ‘Trojan Horse’ saga: partnership and trust are what are needed now

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 June 2014

Chris Husbands
The inspection report is glowing: “This is an outstanding school… Teaching is outstanding overall… The curriculum is outstanding… Students behave exceptionally well in lessons…” In 2013, 75% of all its pupils attained five GCSEs grades A*-C including English and Mathematics, placing it in the top fifth of all schools nationally. Eight in 10 of its disadvantaged pupils achieved expected progress in English – a result comfortably above national averages. More than this, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector visited the school himself and enthused that it was “doing fantastically well. Walking around the school and talking to children, they all appreciate being here. The students are so ambitious for themselves and that is so heartening”.
Just two years later the school is in special measures (PDF): attainment and the quality of teaching are now good, and the quality of leadership and management is now inadequate.
Readers may have guessed: this is Park View Academy in Birmingham, one of the 21 schools at the centre of no less than three separate probes: a co-ordinated OFSTED inspection, a city council investigation, and an investigation by a former head of the anti-terrorist branch. All stem from the charges that a well-organised ‘Trojan Horse’ conspiracy was seeking to transform Park View and other non-faith Birmingham state schools into Islamic schools.
This is a complex saga from which almost no-one involved comes out well. Despite attempts in some of the press to trail the story as a tale of failing inner city schools, inspection reports make it clear that at least several have been good or outstanding.
Despite attempts to link the story to the failings of an urban local authority, several of the schools, including Park View, are already academies: outside the control of the local authority, governed solely by funding agreements with the secretary of state. ‘Academisation’ may be a solution for struggling local authority schools, but it is a difficult policy to promote when schools have already made the switch.
And the complexities get more challenging. For a generation, governments have strenuously advanced the cause of parental influence in education. Under the current government, groups of parents who are dissatisfied with what is on offer from their local authority have had the right to self-organise to propose the establishment of ‘free schools’. But in Birmingham, it appears, some parents have self-organised in a quite different way.
And while schools’ role in community cohesion was dropped from the UK’s inspection framework, across the world schools are encouraged to build strong links and work with the grain of the community. For more than a decade schools have been encouraged to develop their own curriculum specialisms: today’s reports make it clear that in some cases curriculum autonomy has serious shortcomings.
Considerable – and understandable – concern has been raised about segregating boys and girls for assemblies and parts of the curriculum, but it is not too long since the Daily Telegraph and Guardian reported favourably on single gender classes in mixed schools, which, enthused the Telegraph, improved “self esteem… and enthusiasm”. For a century and a half, governments have tolerated or encouraged faith schools in the publicly funded education system. Catholic dioceses, for example, have argued strenuously for the right of Catholic parents and Catholic schools to exercise discretion over the teaching of aspects of science, religious education, sex education or abortion. In Birmingham, it seems, some parents took to extremes their aspirations for a faith ethos and faith practices in their local schools.
The evidence is that Park View Academy still achieves good examination results for many of its pupils despite severe deprivation. The inspected schools have not ceased to succeed for their pupils. But OFSTED also, now, find evidence of something more sinister in the targeting of schools by determined groups and individuals. The saga of the ‘Trojan Horse’ in Birmingham raises profound questions about developments which have become deeply embedded in education policy and practice::

  • How should schools balance their commitment to high attainment with a mission to enhance community cohesion?
  • Do curricular and pastoral practices matter if attainment is high? Politicians of all stripes have on occasion argued that the only thing that matters is results.
  • To whom and how should schools be accountable? There is a powerful trend in much policy debate that schools are fundamentally accountable to parents. How should school leaders respond to insistent demands from well-organised and articulate parent groups wherever they come from?
  • We expect schools to co-operate one with another – but should schools be required to co-operate with other schools from different faith traditions? Politicians of all persuasions have trumpeted the benefits of schools making their own decisions.
  • In an academised school system, in which schools are autonomous, who should monitor the practices – not simply the performance – of schools?

There are no easy answers to these questions. All the evidence is that managing urban school systems demands exceptional skills locally. Gifted local leadership, as David Woods, Chris Brown and I showed in our study of education transformation in Tower Hamlets, can make a real difference to outcomes, but it demands sophisticated skills and strategic planning.
What Birmingham schools now need is not the media blitz which is accompanying the publication of high profile reports, but something quite different: a determined and long-term focus on linking high performance with community development, commitment to working through local tensions and developing confidence and trust amongst all those involved. They need the heat taken out of the situation. Urban schools, as anyone who has taught in or worked with them know, always face difficult challenges. Addressing those challenges requires resilient and professional support.
Local interim executive boards; partnerships between schools, local and national authorities working to engage community groups; trust and effective leadership all need to be built to develop a consensus on what the schools – publicly funded and secular institutions – need in order to deliver high standards and win parental and community support. Among the last things Birmingham schools need right now are press headlines.

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6 Responses to “Birmingham’s ‘Trojan Horse’ saga: partnership and trust are what are needed now”

  • 1
    John Quicke wrote on 9 June 2014:

    Two observations (a) curricular and pastoral practices should surely always be inextricably linked to attainment; otherwise the curriculum is not only narrowed but split into potentially conflicting, hierarchically arranged parts? (b) what exactly is the community that schools are supposed to relate to – parents, all people in a geographical location whether they have children at the school or not, ethnic groups ( all or some?), the city or county wide community etc. ; and if identified, how is it represented, and what is/should be the relationship between this community and the wider community in which it is located, and the national community, which funds the school?

  • 2
    'Trojan Horse is a complex saga from which almost no-one involved comes out well' – Education – TES News wrote on 9 June 2014:

    […] This piece first appeared on the IOE London blog. […]

  • 3
    Iftikhar Ahmad wrote on 9 June 2014:

    It would be impossible to raise a child without indoctrinating him/her in some kind of way. There are no ‘neutral’ ideologies. Secularism, likewise, is not a ‘neutral’ choice. It is also an ideology, with its own assumptions and biases. You are just making a value judgement as to which ideology is preferable to you. In the same way, religious people have a right to pass on their beliefs to their children. Unfortunately because of the state of apartheid Muslims are now living under in the UK these poor Muslim school governors will not be able to sue anyone for defamation because they are brown and muslim – double whammy. It is now impossible to get a fair trial in a UK court if you are both brown and Muslims – the jury will have a degree of indoctrination from the media that all muslims are bad. Hence now over a quarter of the UK prison population are muslims. All trials against Muslims in the UK are shams – why waste tax payer money just throw all muslims in jail. Sure anyone who is Muslim or support Muslims is an extremist in your warped world view.
    Im my opinion the “Trojan horse” bogeyman and the frenzy followed by the mainstream media has been specifically caused by certain xenophobic conservative politicians in the government. In a similar way they reacted with the sale and slaughter of “halal meat”. Always picking on Muslims although Kosher methods are similar. Always picking on Islamic teachings when Christian and Jewish teachings are similar. These politicians are ardent neoconservatives and have a great dislike of Islam. (possibly due to some British Muslims being against their one-sided foreign policy, their support for Middle Eastern tyrants/dictators/military juntas and the extremist Saudi regime – these are the real threats to Britain). Some people are religious, and they wish to educate their children in a religious setting. What is so wrong about that? As long as people have a choice between religious and non-religious schools, I don’t see the problem. Nobody is coercing you to go to a faith school.
    But the reports we seem to be getting about the Park View Birmingham school (and possibly others) being put into ‘Special Measures” is hard to see as anything other than anti-Islamic. That this school was given an ‘outstanding’ grade just two years ago is very hard to square with this. The problem is that the religion of secularism is not defined. I am not opposed to faith schools if they aren’t run with public money. Then you should also look at many institutions which are run with public money and work against the public, including this government. The state is always run based on an ideology which is sometimes similar to a religion. Capitalism nowadays looks more and more like the religion of the rich; practices in this religion may not look like what we think of as religion but they are deeply dogmatic.
    I wouldn’t have a problem if the inspectors had found genuine and worrying signs of authentic extremism – kids being brainwashed into hating the British state, for example. But it seems as far as I can tell that the Inspectors were virtually ordered to go in and unearth evidence of ‘extremism’ that sounds ridiculously thin – using criteria, as you rightly say follow the monkey, couldn’t possibly be applied to any non-Muslim religious school. This kind of unfairness and double standards is more likely to foment extremism than prevent it. What our politicians fail to acknowledge is that our foreign policy and blind support for Israel, U.S wars around the world… etc, is what causes these extremists to hate Britain, not because they’re British and have a different religion/culture. That is the root cause. I do not believe that the situation in Northern Ireland is a result of separate schooling. That is a hugely complex issue with historical, political, and economic reasons behind it. But, that’s a topic for another thread. I also don’t see a problem with believing that other people are different. Real differences do exist between people. Rather than papering over them in some of of enforced ‘sameness’, I would rather see us acknowledge our differences.
    So there was no evidence to show that any of these people were involved or that the schools were involved in supporting extremism. What a bunch of idiots headed by Cameron. So just like teaching kids of 6 and 7 year olds about homosexual relationships, imbeciles like Gove and his Tory extremists want to start brainwashing kids at a young age. Watching the channel 4 news just now shows that their is absolute no evidence of wrong doing from the schools. The Channel 4 correspondent as usual, arrogant, and continuosly tried to interrupt the parent, after realising she did not have any case in her velacci papers.. I just watched the Channel 4 news correspondent interviewing a Muslim parent. She was constantly interrupting him after realising that she did not have a foot to stand on. She came at him from all angles, but I guess the truth was to much for her as she failed in her effort to show him or the school as extremist in any shape or form.
    London School of Islamics Trust

  • 4
  • 5
    J Khan wrote on 9 June 2014:

    I think the media and or government have blown this completely out of proportion. Extremism of any kind is not right. But I cannot help but think OFSTED inspectors are having their reports written to suit the political agenda not to reflect the evidence they find. It does make me sad. I do wonder how many muslim childrens’ classmates think they are extremists or terrorists. I have had experience of this sort of intolerant and ignorant view myself not as direct as this but more subtly. The definition of extremism is not clear. A narrow view of religion is what was reported today. We could argue that sitting in a mass for over an hour in a Catholic school is therefore extreme, that children reciting Christian prayers at the start and end of each day was a form of indoctrination. But this is common practise in Catholic schools. We are walking on thin ice, we are in danger of inciting Islamaphobia if the media and government are not careful. I am British born and bred but I am thinking that I may emigrate because although I contribute to society and pay my taxes and I am a law abiding and civil member of the community both the media and it seems the government are making it difficult for me to live here without now being prejudged just because of my name and religion.I just wish it would all go away.

  • 6
    ‘Trojan Horse’: Reasons to be pessimistic | New Day Starts wrote on 16 June 2014:

    […] Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education, said in the IOE London blog, Birmingham needs “commitment to working through local tensions and developing… trust […]