This is the full version of my essay on the so-called ‘ Trojan Horse’ controversy, first published in the New York Times last month under the headline ‘Education should be beyond belief’.
Last year, the council in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, received an anonymous document that supposedly advised militant Muslims on how to take over the governing bodies of state schools and impose upon them Islamist values. Since the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ plot was reported in March, it has become the centre of a national controversy about radical Islam and how to deal with it, leading most recently to a ugly public spat between the Home Secretary Theresa May and the Education Secretary Michael Gove as to who should take the blame.
The original document is almost certainly a hoax. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is something profoundly wrong with many of the schools in Birmingham – and elsewhere. What exactly is wrong has, however, largely been lost in the fog of ideological claim and counter-claim. The Trojan Horse scandal has become an illustration both of the fraught nature of the contemporary debate about Islam and of the chaotic and contradictory character of British government policy.
The government’s initial response — to begin an inquiry led by a former police counterterrorism chief, Peter Clarke — suggested that the issue was as much about terrorism as about educational values. Since then four other official inquiries have been established, investigating some 21 schools in Birmingham. Two of those inquiries – by Ofsted, Britain’s school inspectorate, and by the Education Funding Agency, another government schools regulator – recently published reports. They paint a grim picture.
Five of the 21 schools have been placed in ‘special measures’, an administrative status applied to schools deemed to be failing. Another eleven will be ‘monitored’ because ‘the quality of leadership and management requires improvement’. The Ofsted report described governors at one school as attempting to ‘promote a particular and narrow faith-based ideology’. In another school, certain subjects deemed un-Islamic, including music, were removed from the syllabus. The report talked also of gender segregation in certain subjects and of girls being ‘discouraged from participating in extracurricular activities’. None of the five schools, the report concluded, are ‘doing enough to mitigate against cultural isolation’ or to ‘prepare pupils adequately for life in modern Britain’.
But if the management at these schools is disturbing, so is the official response. No evidence has been produced to link the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair to terrorism. Yet, the Ofsted report criticizes the schools for not taking sufficiently seriously the government’s counter-terror ‘Prevent’ programme. But why should they – unless Ofsted thinks that all Muslim children are potential terrorists? The report appears to view the problem of Muslim-majority schools through the lens not of educational needs but of counter-terrorism. The conclusions seem to have been framed by the requirements of a particular political agenda rather by the pragmatic needs of specific schools for better governance.
What the investigations have revealed is not a jihadist plot but attempts to enforce conservative religious values. What is particularly ironic is that the government itself has encouraged communities and faiths to pursue their own values and traditions within schools. In the name of a ‘more diverse school system’, the current coalition government has expanded the policy of the previous Labour government to loosen schools from state control, free them from the strictures of the national curriculum, and allow parents and governing bodies greater say in setting a school’s ethos. It has relentlessly promoted ‘faith schools’ – state funded schools run on religious lines, and according to the tenets of particular faiths, whether Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim.
Two years ago, after criticism of a booklet used by Catholic schools that told pupils that ‘the homosexual act is disordered’ and contrary to ‘God’s natural purpose for sex’, Education Secretary Michael Gove defended the right of schools to promote the values they see fit. Private schools, outside the state system, should be free ‘to teach creationism and other types religious teachings’, the government has ruled, because it believes in ‘the right of parents to bring up their children as they see fit’. Ofsted guidelines published earlier this year permit Muslim faith schools to segregate pupils, ‘restrict’ the teaching of music and art, and allow girls to wear the hijab ‘as a part of their identity and a commitment to their beliefs within Islam’. (In the light of the Birmingham events, Ofsted appear now to be reconsidering its advice, though no new guidelines have yet been issued.)
If such values and practices are acceptable in faith schools, why not in all schools where parents may desire them? And if they are unacceptable in the nondenominational Birmingham schools because they do not ‘prepare pupils adequately for life in modern Britain’, why should they be tolerated in faith schools? The Trojan Horse saga reveals the contradictions at the heart of government policy. It raises questions not just about the schools in Birmingham but about the whole government policy of encouraging and supporting faith schools.
It raises questions also of broader government policies towards multiculturalism. Policy makers have tended to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogeneous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. Successive governments have attempted to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. In so doing, policy makers have all too often ignored the diversity within minority communities. And they have taken the most conservative, reactionary figures to be the authentic voices of those communities.
That is why whether or not there was a ‘plot’ to takeover Birmingham schools is almost moot. There was no need for a plot. In fragmenting the school system, in relentlessly pushing the mantra of ‘parental choice’ and in encouraging different communities to promote different values, the government itself has opened the door to Islamists in schools.
The ‘Trojan Horse’ debate reveals how the public debate about Islam has become polarized between those who think that any problem involving the Muslim community must be viewed through the lens of terrorism and those who insist that any criticism of Muslim practices or values is Islamophobic. Issues of poor leadership at specific schools have become politicized, while the real political problems that have helped create the mess are ignored.
Instead of promoting a secular state education system, and a shared educational framework that would ensure all children are taught to a common national standard, the government has encouraged different communities to define their notion of education and to devise their own curriculum. And when it goes disastrously wrong, as in Birmingham, rather than question its own policies it blames the community.