FOCUS: Liberal anxiety and the education of Muslim children, a tale of two schools

FOCUS: Liberal anxiety and the education of Muslim children, a tale of two schools

John Holmwood

This article discusses two schools in Birmingham, both of which have been subject to intense political discussion and media interest. The most recent of the cases is Al-Hijrah school where a Court of Appeal judgement in October declared its practices of gender segregation to be illegal under the Equality Act 2010. The other school is Park View Academy (and its Educational Trust, PVET) which was at the centre of the ‘Trojan Horse affair’ concerning undue religious influence and a supposed plot to Islamicise schools in Birmingham in early 2014. The latter involved a series of special inspections of 21 schools and 2 inquiries – under Peter Clarke and Ian Kershaw – which were widely reported.

Professional misconduct cases were brought against teachers at PVET, but these collapsed in May 2017, with the Panel declaring that, “there has been an abuse of the process which is of such seriousness that it offends the Panel’s sense of justice and propriety.  What has happened has brought the integrity of the process into disrepute” (Paragraph 174). Both before and after the collapse of the cases, the Government has used the Trojan Horse affair as justification of a revised counter-extremism strategy focused on promoting fundamental British values, including in schools, arguing that the ‘Trojan Horse affair’ indicated the very real danger of extremist ‘entryism’.

Park View school was a co-educational school catering to pupils aged 11-16 (PVET was dissolved in 2014, when Park View Academy became Rockwood Academy). Initially, a local authority school, it converted to an academy in 2012. Although not designated as a faith school, its pupil intake was 98.9% Muslim heritage. 72.7% of its pupils were on free school meals (an indicator of social deprivation) and just 7.5% of pupils had English as a first language. The school had been in special measures in 1996, yet had rapidly improved to become by 2012 in the top 14% of all schools in the country. Unlike Park View, Al-Hijrah is a voluntary aided faith school (since 2001 – it was first set up in 1988) one of 27 such Islamic school in the UK. Unlike Park View, it is not academically successful and has been in special measures since 2014 and subject to interim inspections as part of those measures. The school is co-educational, catering for pupils from ages 4 to 16.

Al-Hijrah school separates pupils in all lessons, breaks, and in movement around the school from year 5, in effect operating as two separate schools for boys and girls albeit on the same site. Although the school had been improving academically, in 2016 a special Ofsted inspection focused on its practices of  segregation, declaring them to be unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. This was notwithstanding that these practices were openly advertised to parents and were fully visible to the authorities, including Ofsted in previous inspections. Moreover, the school claimed that while it provided separate education it was equal.

The school sought a judicial review of the 2016 Ofsted report, arguing ‘bias’ and that Ofsted had not demonstrated that the separate education of boys and girls had been to the detriment of either group. The school authorities were granted permission for review in November 2016 on the second of the grounds. Ofsted, in turn, appealed against this decision. Ofsted (or, more properly, HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Service and Skills) were joined by the Secretary of State for Education, as first ‘intervener’, the Human Rights Commission as second ‘intervener’. and Southall Black Sisters and Inspire (a Muslim women’s rights organisation concerned with combatting extremism) as third ‘interveners’. The latter were allowed to present written evidence, but not make direct representations to the court.

Individual and Collective Harms
Judgement was made in October 2017, with the ruling that there was indeed a detriment, in principle, and that the gender segregation was unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. The Court of Appeal did not find that there was a collective harm. However, it did rule that individual girls and boys were deprived of the possibility of interacting with members of the opposite sex despite it being at a coeducational school. They therefore suffered some detriment and were discriminated against. Lady Justice Gloster dissented from the idea that there was no need to address the issue of the collective harm and provided a minority judgement.

Let’s get a few things out of the way. In this article, I am not questioning the judgement in law. Nor is it material to the judgement itself that Ofsted (and the local authority) had been aware of the practices at the school and had failed to question them previously. What I want to draw attention to is how the law is constructed and also the nature of the evidence put forward in support of the idea of a collective harm.

Ofsted’s inspection report in 2016 stated that Al-Hijrah’s gender segregation policies, “does not accord with fundamental British values and amounts to unlawful discrimination” and, further, that it, “does not give due regard to the need to foster good relations between the genders, and means that girls and boys do not have equal opportunities to develop confident relationships with boys and vice versa. This is contrary to fundamental British values and the Equality Act 2010.” Accordance with ‘fundamental British values’ is a criterion introduced in 2015, following the ‘Trojan Horse affair’. However, it is not addressed by the Court of Appeal, where the ruling relies on compliance with the Equality Act 2010.

In its inspection report and in its appeal, Ofsted (and other interveners) draw a parallel between racial segregation in South Africa and in the US. In particular, reference is made to the judgement of the US Supreme Court in 1954 against the Topeka County (Kansas) Board of Education – popularly known as Brown v Board of Education. This case led to the formal desegregation of schools in the US and its citation implies that the lessons that can be drawn from it are unequivocal.

However, despite being a milestone case, there is a considerable difference of opinion about its consequences.[1] The African American scholar, Charles M Payne, suggests that it is a milestone in search of a signifier. De jure desegregation did not give rise to de facto desegregation and, in many respects, the education of African American children was worse after Brown v Board of Education than it was before. Moreover, the judgement was focused on the ‘psychic harm’ done to African American children by segregation rather than on the equal freedom of parents to choose a school for their children’s education. It was this supposed psychic harm that the judgement sought to ameliorate, not the harms of racialised injustice as such. The latter harms to African Americans are structural, not interpersonal; they include labour market disadvantages, poverty, and housing segregation, among others.

Brown v Board of Education did nothing to address the structural issues. Indeed, it implied that ‘psychic deficit’ might be part of the explanation for the structural problems. In effect, a structural problem was addressed as a behavioural problem, and, as a consequence, the victim was blamed. Worse, according to Payne, this became a new orthodoxy among white Americans and, in this way, southern attitudes became generalised in a language that suppressed overt racism, but reproduced its effects. So long as negative racial attitudes were not directly expressed, the disadvantages experienced by African Americans could be understood as deriving from their own behaviours and not from discrimination.

In her minority opinion (supported by an editorial in the Guardian), Lady Justice Gloster makes the case for the ‘collective harm’ that gender segregation in a school represents for girls. She does so in the context that the main judgement included recognition that, “women have been and remain ‘the group with minority power in society’ in terms of the distribution of wealth and influence” (paragraph 131). She goes on to propose that single sex education creates attitudes and sentiments that sustain later social networks where women lose out more than men and are disproportionately excluded from networks of power and influence. This she argues, represents an outcome of the ‘expressive harm’ that segregation represents.

Notice that structural obstacles to gender inequality – for example, the organisation of the working day, the availability of affordable child care, etc – are neglected, in favour of interpersonal issues of sociability. Moreover, it is unlikely that a school serving a poor community has direct responsibility for the reproduction of interpersonal gender relations that diminish women’s power and influence more generally. Of course, this is not to deny that women in poor communities, or Muslim women, in particular, do not also experience structural inequalities, including those deriving from patriarchal practices specific to their own communities as pointed out by Southall Black Sisters, for example.

However, this then raises the issue of how best to mitigate such inequalities. For example, there may be cultural as well as structural constraints on women’s employment opportunities. However, these can be offset by ensuring that girls secure good educational outcomes. This does not, in itself, entail disparagement of cultural attitudes, unless it is assumed that Muslim parents do not value education. In fact, one of the arguments levelled against Muslim parents and governors by the Kershaw Report, for example, was that they were too zealous in criticising schools for their failure to achieve better educational outcomes for their children (see, paragraph 28). The point at issue, then, is the extent to which one community has become the focus of special attention.

Gender segregation and fundamental ‘British values’
Notice that the wider educational system is also not at issue in the Court of Appeal’s judgement and in the dissenting opinion of Lady Gloster. For example, nothing is said about single sex education itself, or the different status of private schools for boys and girls and the reproduction of elites. Indeed, the Equality Act 2010 exempts private schools from its provisions, except in the limited context where girls may have been allowed to take classes in some subjects in a boys school because facilities to teach them (say, physics) may not be available at their own school (itself indicative of an inequality that is not problematic under the act); while they may be excluded from other subjects, they must have access to common areas such as the cafeteria for use while they are at the other school.

A private decision of parents in favour of single sex education is upheld in law provided that they are able to pay for it, notwithstanding that the aggregation of such decisions would necessarily produce an ‘expressive harm’ to women on Justice Gloster’s arguments. Indeed, such decisions would also produce the individual harms that were identified by the judgement – children at single sex schools are deprived of the opportunity to socialise with members of the opposite sex. Notice, however, that Ofsted charged the leadership team at Al-Hijrah with practices of segregation that were in breach of British values and were unlawful. Clearly, British values do countenance gender segregation in education and, indeed, endorse them at the highest level of society.  Moreover, that form of gender segregation is protected in law.

Publicly-funded education has to meet different standards, but only in schools that are declared to be co-educational. The Trust responsible for Al-Hijrah school, for example, could apply to create two separate schools for boys and girls in two adjacent buildings, or in a single building properly divided and offering similar facilities, as indeed, is the case with other schools in Birmingham (for example, schools associated with the King Edward VI Academy Trust and its single sex, selective grammar schools) and be exempt from criticism under the Act.

In fact, the judgements elide the issue of ‘fundamental British values’ by declaring that, in so far as it is protected in law, gender equality is a British value, albeit not enjoined upon the well-off where the law makes special provision. Sending your child to, say, Eton College, does not represent a failure to prepare him for life in modern Britain, even where the gender segregation it entails is more extensive because of the residential nature of the school. Moreover, such schools are strongly implicated in the reproduction of inequality, including gender inequality, and necessarily act as a limit on equal opportunities.

We have already seen that the Court of Appeal’s judgement had sought to restrict its judgement to the individual right of girls and boys to socialise with members of the other sex. However, from the liberal perspective that motivates Lady Justice Gloster, those rights should also protect children from (oppressive) cultural values, whether religiously enjoined, or not. This is a classic justification of secular education and would imply that there should be no faith schools at all. However, given the centrality of Anglican and Roman Catholic education in the development of public education, the argument comes to focus on ethnic minorities and faiths other than Christianity. Ethnic minorities are the object of suspicion involving the need, in their case, to protect the rights of children against the choices of their parents. Here, the issue is that of supposed ‘illiberal cultural norms’, and these are associated by Lady Justice Gloster with ‘fundamentalist’ religious interpretations of Islam (and some Christian and orthodox Jewish interpretations of their religions, too – though, of course, faith schools other than those charged with ‘fundamentalism’ offer single-sex education).

A publicly-funded school organised on ‘liberal’ principles, it is proposed, may function to educate parents as well as children, but will, at least, protect children from parental choices. This argument was recently made by Sir Michael Wilshaw’s successor as Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, Amanda Spielman, at a conference on values in education: “Most children spend less than a fifth of their childhood hours in schools and most of the rest with their family. And so if children aren’t being taught these values at home, or worse are being encouraged to resist them, then schools are our main opportunity to fill that gap.” She went on to argue that, “this, I believe, was where the so-called Trojan Horse schools failed. Not only were there issues with promoting British Values in many of those schools, but in some cases members of the community were attempting to bring extreme views into school life. The very places that should have been broadening horizons and outlooks were instead reinforcing a backward view of society.”

Lady Gloster, for her part, drew attention to evidence provided by Ofsted of direct gender discrimination at Al-Hijrah school – for example, of books in the library that sanction male authority over women, and support for conventional gender roles. I do not want to question this evidence, although it should be pointed out that similar claims were made of Park View without proper substantiation (for detailed discussion see part 2 of Holmwood and O’Toole, 2017). Instead I want to address other ‘evidence’ adduced by Lady Gloster, which she derives from the Casey Review. This refers to the self-segregation of Muslim communities which is held to derive from cultural norms that are at odds with British values. As I have argued, Brown v Board of Education endorses a behavioural, rather than structural, explanation of (racial) disadvantage. Here we are offered a behavioural explanation of Muslim disadvantage in Britain. In fact, studies show that British Muslims have a higher identification with values of democracy, the rule of law and religious tolerance than do other ethnic minorities (See, Karlsen and Nazroo 2015). However, they have a greater commitment to religious expression than the mainstream population. It is this religious expression that is viewed with suspicion, and at odds with British values, despite the fact that British values are held to entail religious tolerance.

One of the consequences of de-segregation in the US was to undermine separate schools for African-American children and move them into formerly white schools (a process resisted through ‘white flight’, residential segregation and differential funding for schools). The academic performance of African-American pupils declined, not least because their black teachers from the closed black schools were not brought into the formerly all-white schools. As a result, there was an absence of role models which had a detrimental impact on the performance of black pupils. Brown v Board of Education identified ‘psychic harm’, but did not ameliorate it. Instead, it reinforced the idea that incorporation into the ‘white’ culture of schools would be associated with academic success.

Studies of African American and Latino pupils in the US suggest that success in schools derives from building self-confidence among pupils. This, in turn, derives from positive cultural identification both with the dominant culture and that of their own ethnic (or religious) group. This is what Telles and Ortiz (2008) describe as ‘bi-cultural identification’. They find that a decline in positive identification with their own ethnic group amongst pupils leads to a decline in academic performance (as does a singular identification with that ethnicity), as pupils internalise the dominant culture’s low valuation and expectations of them. Similarly, Yasui and her colleagues (2004) show that positive ethnic identification is associated with psychological adjustment, while Wong, Eccles and Sameroff (2003) show that if pupils perceive themselves to be discriminated against, then this is associated with declining grades and weaker psychological resilience, which are mitigated by stronger ethnic identification. This was a view that was shared by the Swann report of 1985, Education for All.

The Swann report recommended that schools and curricula should reflect and provide for the cultural identities of children, as well as tackle direct and indirect discrimination, in order to raise the educational performance of minority ethnic children. The report also noted: “Far more can and should be done by schools to respond to the ‘pastoral’ needs of Muslim pupils, to ensure that there is a real respect and understanding by both teachers and parents of each others concerns and that the demands of the school place no child in fundamental conflict with the requirements of his [sic] faith” (pages 773-4, paragraph: 6.10).

Transcending the parameters of community?
It is here that the experience of Park View school becomes relevant. Unlike Al-Hijrah school, it was academically highly successful. Although part of the dominant Trojan Horse narrative was that religiously-motivated governors and parents had put pressure on successful headteachers (for example, the then Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw made this claim), it was the successful headteacher of Park View, Lindsey Clarke, and her senior team, that were pilloried, including by Sir Michael. Significantly, nothing unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 was claimed against the school. The school did have separate classes for girls and boys in physical education (and for one other lesson scheduled for when the other group was taking PE), but this followed best practice and Department for Education guidelines.

The school did have a policy that ruled out the physical expression of personal relationships among pupils while at school, something that was regarded as ‘moralistic’ and an indication of conservatism. However, this was a policy that Sir Michael Wilshaw had also enacted when he was headteacher at Mossbourne school. In a different context, the school’s rules might have been regarded as ‘feminist’, rather than Islamic, and indicative of a proper safeguarding approach in seeking to protect pupils from harassment and sexual bullying. Indeed, in September 2016, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published a report on the topic, including concern about behaviour that tended to be accepted as ‘low level banter’, which was widely reported. Susie McGuinness, writing in The Daily Telegraph, has recently advocated a ‘zero tolerance’ policy in schools. In this context, it is significant that Amanda Spielman has instructed Ofsted Inspectors to question primary school girls who wear the hijab, suggesting it could be seen as ‘sexualising’ them, while the recommendations of the Women and Equalities Committee have yet to be implemented.

The claim in the professional misconduct cases was that the school had allowed undue religious influence and had acted as if it were a ‘faith’ school rather than a ‘secular’ state school. However, all schools in England are required by law to teach religious education and to have a daily act of worship. The latter need not be Christian and can be varied in line with the background of the pupils – in community schools ‘determinations’ for other than Christian worship are the responsibility of local Standing Advisory Committees on Religious Education (SACREs). Park View had had a ‘determination’ for Islamic collective worship since 1996. This had been due for renewal (something that happens every 5 years) in 2012, albeit that the Department for Education, which had taken over responsibility for determinations for all academy schools, had not put in a place a mechanism to do it.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the problem of Park View was the very fact that it had an ‘Islamic ethos’, rather than a ‘Christian ethos’, and that this elicited suspicion, especially concerning the ‘values’ expressed within the school. Yet this judgement was made despite the success of the school in terms of the academic performance of its pupils. For example, Tim Boyes, CEO of Birmingham Education Partnership, appointed by Birmingham City Council to oversee schools after the Trojan Horse affair, suggested, “the problem that sits behind Trojan Horse is not about Islamic extremism, it’s about schools unhelpfully locked into the closest parameters of their neighbourhoods.” Yet, the very academic success of the school suggests that it had transcended parameters of inequality that are usually associated with underperformance.

In our book on the ‘Trojan Horse affair’, we trace the trajectory of the school from ‘special measures’ in 1996 to ‘outstanding’ in 2012 and being designated as a National Support School (see, Holmwood and O’Toole 2017). The community in which it was located – Alum Rock – was, in the Casey Review’s terms, deprived and residentially segregated with a high proportion of Muslims, but its school was providing an exemplary education. Ofsted inspection reports during that period emphasise how the school had worked with the local community to build confidence and engagement with the school and its academic aspirations for the children. Its pupils, including girls, were well-prepared for life in modern Britain, in particular for jobs and for further and higher education. Ofsted, in its January 2012 report, had judged its students to be “very thoughtful, independent and confident young people” (page 4).

Indeed, the Department for Education seems not to have had any concerns about the ‘ethos’ of the school. It acted in partnership with the Birmingham City Council’s schools improvement programme to encourage Park View to become an academy and incorporate other schools that were failing into its Trust (this included its ‘feeder’ primary, Nansen). The ‘takeover’ of schools with a high proportion of Muslim pupils, then, was promoted by the authorities responsible for schools not something that was unnoticed by them and about which they should have been cautious.  Significantly, the Department for Education also asked the Trust to incorporate Al-Furqan school, an Islamic faith primary school, because of the Islamic ethos at the Trust. This did not take place because the leadership team at PVET regarded the trustees of Al-Furqan to hold Islamic practices to be more important than academic success. However, among the witness statements to the Clarke Report (which were not included within it and were among those implicated in the NCTL’s impropriety over failures in disclosure) were from officials at the Department for Education and Birmingham SACRE, which directly contradicted the ‘evidence’ which was put forward by that report (and the associated Kershaw Report for Birmingham City Council).

Fundamental ‘British’ values are understood to involve a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and religious tolerance. A strong implication is that some ethnic minorities lack a commitment to such values where conservative orientations to gender roles and sexual orientation have come to indicate this weak commitment. The failure to embrace British values on the part of some minorities is also put forward as an explanation of poor pupil achievement, which, in turn puts integration at risk. Yet British values tolerate the exercise of conservative orientations on the part of the wealthy, who are also allowed to purchase educational advantage for their children. While all schools are expected to have a religious ethos – expressed in the legal requirement for religious education and daily acts of collective worship – when that ethos is Islamic it is subject to profound suspicion, such that the authorities are willing to castigate educationally successful and unsuccessful schools alike.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was asked by the House of Commons Select Committee on Education in 2015 if he thought that children, communities and schools in Birmingham had benefited from Ofsted’s intervention over the Trojan Horse affair. He replied, “they have benefited in some sense, because they are not the subject of the sort of policies that would be pursued by these governors with a very particular view of how schools should be run. They are free of that. But those schools have been through an enormous amount of turmoil” (paragraph 76). Four years after the Trojan Horse affair, the successor school to Park View has yet to reach the educational success it achieved for its pupils. In other words, its pupils have been ‘freed’ from the supposed constraints of their own cultural expression, while not being provided with the academic achievements that would ensure social mobility. In the meantime, Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon launched the first of his new army cadet corps at the school, offering them access to the British Army as an alternative route.

[1] For more on Brown v Board of Education see Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, ‘Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment.

Holmwood, John and Therese O’Toole (2017) Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. Bristol: Policy Press. ‘Introduction’ available free online here.
Karlsen, Saffron and James Y. Nazroo (2015) ‘Ethnic and religious differences in the attitudes of people towards being “British”’, Sociological Review. 63(4): 759–781.
Payne, Charles M. (2004)’”The whole United States is Southern!”: Brown v. Board and the mystification of race’, The Journal of American History, 91(1): 83-91. Available in pre-publication format here.
Telles, Edward E. and Vilma Ortiz (2008) ‘Finding America: Creating Educational Opportunity for our Newest Citizens.’ In Brian D. Smedley and Alan Jenkins (eds.) All Things Being Equal: Instigating Opportunity in an Inequitable Time. New York: The New Press.
Wong, C., J. Eccles and A. Sameroff (2003). ‘The influence of ethnic discrimination and ethnic identification on African American adolescents’ school and socioemotional adjustment’. Journal of Personality, 71: 1197–1232.
Yasui, Miwa, Carole La Rue Dorhan and Thomas J. Fishion, Thomas J. (2004). ‘Ethnic identity and psychological adjustment: A validity analysis for European American and African American adolescents’, Journal of Adolescent Research, 19: 807-825.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He was an expert witness for the defence in the National College of Teaching and Leadership’s professional misconduct case against senior leaders of Park View Educational Trust. His book, co-authored together with Therese O’Toole, Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Bristol: Policy Press) has recently been published.