Image: Park View School, Birmingham, website
Shamim Miah, University of Huddersfield
For some, the ‘Trojan Horse’ saga associated with the Birmingham schools represents a worrying trend of creeping ‘Islamification’ of publicly funded schools. For others, the story signifies the on-going racial patholigisation of Britain’s Muslim communities. One thing is for certain, the current debate marks a significant milestone in the nature and function of the neo-liberal state as it re-frames race relation policy in Britain in light of the securitisation agenda. The severity of the Trojan Horse debate, as it aims to push through an assimilationist policy agenda, can be compared to the Stasi commission in 2003 and its enforcement of laicite in French schools.
This short article is based upon a review of all the 21 Ofsted inspection reports linked with the Birmingham Trojan Horse. I will argue that the significance of the Ofsted reports lies not only in the redefining of extremism to equate with Muslim cultural conservatism, with the implicit assumption that Muslims have sole monopoly over cultural conservatism, but also in the ways in which a seemingly ‘independent’ body is used by the state to embed the governments counter terrorism programme of Preventing violent extremism at the heart of inner city schooling. This article will further demonstrate how a reoccurring theme in all Ofsted reports, not only recommends all schools to implement ‘Prevent’ policies, but also urged them to integrate counter-terrorism measures through safeguarding policies. This discursive shift away from educational attainment and social inequality to securitisation of education is one of the crucial legacies arising from the Ofsted rulings.
Trojan Horse: A tool to govern the Muslim problematic
In early March 2014, The Sunday Times covered a story which involved an ‘Islamist plot to take over schools’. The same story was reported by the Birmingham Mail with ‘Trojan Horse Jihadist plot to take over Birmingham schools’ as its headline. The ‘Trojan Horse’ plot revolved around the idea of a ‘radical Islamist plan’ aimed at infiltrating schools with majority Muslim pupils, and transforming the leadership and management of the school through recruiting ‘hard-line Muslim parents and staff’ with a view of implementing a narrow, ultra-conservative school curriculum.
The letter which outlined the plot was initially sent to Birmingham City Council last November; it was then passed to the Home Office and finally to the Department of Education, until it became public after it was leaked to the media in late February. As early as March, critics began to point out that the Operation Trojan Horse (OTH) document may have been a hoax connected with wider claims of fraud by former members of staff linked to one of 5 schools mentioned in the OTH letter – the links are now been investigated by the West Midlands Police. Despite the questions regarding the authenticity of the OTH letter, it seems that that the story has taken its own meaning of truth. It is seen to confirm existing pre-conceived ideas of Muslim communities undermining a secular liberal consensus in Britain.
The fact that an unauthenticated document has had such a huge impact on public discourse sets worrying precedents for the future, as it potentially frames future allegations of Muslims setting up Trojan Horses to infiltrate politics, local authorities and even the NHS.
Indeed, the Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, has claimed that Tower Hamlets could be ‘targeted in Trojan Horse-style Islamist infiltration plot‘. He further claimed that whilst ‘much as the entryism, the Trojan Horse allegations [were] in education in Birmingham, the Trojan Horse in east-London was a political one rather than an educational one’. In essence, the ‘Muslim Trojan Horse’ becomes a euphemism based upon an uncritical acceptance of ‘truths’ which not only attempts to justify collective prejudice towards Muslims but also provides an impetus for the state to govern its Muslim communities through securitisation.
Ofsted: Policy of ‘Prevent’ing education
Alum Rock, Birmingham, along with Manningham, Bradford and Tower Hamlets, London represent spatial narratives; they conjure up certain images for the general reader. Whenever these three localities are shown in the media they are often presented within a backdrop of women in niqabs, men with long beards in traditional clothes, and piercing minarets from purpose built mosques. They are essentially made to symbolise parallel existence, self-segregation and all things un-British. The media headlines associated with the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham and Bradford not only reinforce racialised spatial narratives but also confirms ‘our concerns and fears’.
In light of this, it is not surprising to note the reactions by the state. Both central and local government responses to the OTH plot were to play a pivotal role in shaping the discursive parameters of the debate within counter-terrorism and securitisation. The city council responded by appointing Ian Kershaw as an Independent Chief Advisor with a view of overseeing the investigation. It also set up a newly established Review Group comprised of MPs, councillors and faith leaders, chaired by Stephen Rimmer. The latter was the former director of the Prevent strategy based at the Home Office; he was parachuted into Birmingham as a lead investigator into abuse and sexual exploitation of children. More crucially, Michael Gove’s controversial response was to appoint Peter Clarke, the former head of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism unit, which led the investigations into the 7/7 London bombings in 2005. The Ofsted inspection reports published this month are best understood in light of the above framing of the discourse through the lenses of biopolitics and security.
Out of the 21 schools inspected by Ofsted: 6 consist of secondary schools, 1 all-through 4-19 school, 12 primary schools, 1 primary and nursery and 1 nursery school. All the schools were publically funded schools – none of the schools inspected were Muslims faith schools. All of the 21 schools comprised of majority Muslim pupils and most of them were from deprived background and in receipt of free schools meals. The central feature arising from all the Ofsted inspection reports seems to revolve around section 10 of the Prevent Strategy (2011) and not the comprehensive inspection framework identified in the Ofsted Inspection Handbook.
In fact, the Ofsted Inspection Handbook (revised April 2014) has no mention of the Prevent Strategy (2011). This is perhaps unsurprising since the latter suggests that there is little evidence of recruitment into political extremism in children under 15. The only reference to ‘prevent extremism’ in the Ofsted Handbook is part of a wider discussion regarding ‘the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school’, which includes discussion on e-safety, racism, bullying etc. In short, it seems that the 21 inspections of Birmingham schools were not focused on the quality of teaching and learning, nor on the bigger questions about how poor children from deprived areas are doing in state schools, and children’s broader safety and well-being, but rather on the relationship with the state and its security apparatus visa-via the Prevent agenda.
One of the most striking of cases involves the only nursery school on the list of 21 schools inspected by Ofsted. The nursery school has 52 pupils on its role, all of whom are of south Asian heritage. The school was criticised because ‘school leaders were unaware of local authority or government guidelines on the prevention of extreme and radical behaviours as set out in the Prevent programme’. In light of this, Ofsted recommended that ‘staff and governors require further and immediate training to ensure that the new policy is understood and appropriately monitored’. Part of this training, it is argued, would lead to ‘identifying and minimising extremist behaviour’.
The embedding of Prevent Strategy, which forms part of CONTEST; UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy raises a number of fundamental ethical questions. Firstly, it seems that the indiscriminate use of Prevent measures is used to frame young Muslim, some of them as young as 4 years, through the lenses of counter-terrorism? Secondly, one of the most significant moments in a child’s memory of attending nursery starts with, as far as Ofsted is concerned, with a deficit, or a label, which implies they are potential ‘terrorists’. Thirdly, from a practical point of view how does Prevent operate within the context of early years education? How are teachers to identify signs of radicalisation within nursery children? Finally, surely there is a moral and an ethical case for nursery children to be safeguarded against the Prevent Strategy?
Prior to the Ofsted intervention with Birmingham schools, Ofsted used to carry a degree of trust, legitimacy and transparency within Muslim communities. Ofsted inspection reports were one of the many sources used by Muslim parents to inform choice and type of school for their children. Following the publication and subsequent debate over the ‘Trojan Horse’ in Birmingham schools, not only has Ofsted compromised its independence but also its credibility. It has helped establish a de-facto-dual inspection framework; one for schools with large cohort of Muslim pupils and the other for remaining schools. It has further reinforced the image of Muslims as suspect communities by undermining current and future Muslim school governors. The significance of the Trojan Horse and Muslim participation in civil society with the breakdown of trust can be seen by the resignation of the Board of Governors at one of the secondary schools embroiled in the Trojan Horse scandal due to ‘little faith or trust’ in the Ofsted inspection and also in the light of their expectations of findings by Birmingham City Council and also by Peter Clarke which are due to be published soon.
Shamim Miah is senior lecturer in the School of Education, University of Huddersfield. His published works covers sociology of race, religion and public policy. He is currently completing a monograph on Muslims, Schooling and the Question of Self-Segregation (Palgrave).