Operation Trojan Horse: Will we ever learn the truth?
- 17 April 2014
- From the section Birmingham & Black Country
This week three senior figures were appointed to oversee investigations into claims that a small group of hard-line Muslims had tried to "take over" schools in Birmingham.
This was after it emerged the inquiry into the so-called Operation Trojan Horse plot was much bigger than first thought. More than 200 separate complaints have been made about 25 schools, all of which are in parts of the city with Muslim populations of 90% or more.
So what is the Operation Trojan Horse 'plot', is it even real and are we likely to ever learn the truth?
At the heart of the story is the document first sent to the city council at the beginning of last November. An accompanying letter from a "concerned citizen" urges the leader, Sir Albert Bore, to act immediately upon reading a document, which he or she claims, was found in the office of his or her "boss" at a school in Birmingham. The same letter was sent to four schools in early February.
Apparently written in Birmingham with instructions to someone in Bradford, it details a five point plan on how to take over schools, which the author calls Operation Trojan Horse.
It suggests targeting schools with a predominantly Muslim population, especially in poorer areas, before selecting a group of parents, which it describes as "hard liners", to agitate at the school gate and in the playground and to raise questions about staff, the syllabus and teaching methods.
It goes on to say that after infiltrating the governing body, a policy of disruption should be carried out from within, until the leadership has been changed to one more sympathetic to the group's religious views.
Trojan Horse, it says, is "totally invisible to the naked eye and allows us to operate under the radar. I have detailed the plan we have in Birmingham and how well it has worked and you will see how easy the whole process is to get the head teacher out and your own person in".
It identifies four schools at which it claims Operation Trojan Horse had been successfully put into action. Saltley School, Adderley School, Regents Park Community School and Park View Academy.
A Park View governor, Tahir Alam, is named in the document as someone who was involved in the plot, an accusation he has repeatedly and strenuously denied. Another school, Highfield, is mentioned as a potential target.
Real or fake?
Those that argue that it is a hoax point to problems with the language used in the document and question the accuracy of some of what is said. Much of what's referred to in the document had been widely reported locally before reaching the attention of the national press.
It is, they argue, too good to be true. If there were a genuine conspiracy, then who would take the trouble to write it all down and leave an incriminating paper trail?
Those that say it's genuine say that some of the allegations had not previously been in the public domain. The document, they say, has been with Birmingham City Council for six months and was, during the early stages of the investigation, also scrutinised by detectives. If it had been proven to be a fake, why has no-one been able to categorically say it is?
When asked directly, officials have qualified their answers saying it is "probably a fake", or "likely to be spurious", but without a definitive answer.
Unless the author of the letter, or the Trojan Horse document, is positively identified, it may be impossible to prove its provenance
Even if it was fabricated, it might have been a well-intentioned attempt by a whistleblower to try to alert the authorities to genuine concerns about leadership and governance.
Hoax or not, it has prompted a storm of allegations about bullying and intimidation at schools, as well as accusations that the Department of Education and the city council allowed a small clique to remove teachers, staff and governors and introduce more Islamic teaching methods.
Many of the schools have had good or outstanding Ofsted inspection reports and can point to good achievements in exams.
In the seven weeks since the story became public, there have been repeated complaints that state-funded, secular institutions have been turned into faith schools by stealth.
It has been alleged that girls and boys are forced to sit apart in class; female teaching staff are bullied or ignored by male Muslim counterparts; Arabic has replaced French or other European languages on the curriculum; ultra-conservative dress codes are strictly enforced and, most controversially of all, that on at least one occasion, a radical cleric and senior figure within al Qaeda was praised in an assembly.
Many of the people making these accusations have refused to speak publicly, but instead have given anonymous interviews to the media. They have been accused of being racist Islamophobes with personal grudges.
The claims are being taken extremely seriously by all of the authorities and have prompted a number of inquiries.
What are the inquiries looking into?
Ofsted is investigating the schools on behalf of the Department for Education. It is specifically looking into allegations of wrongdoing within the schools. Questions will have been asked about the leadership, the curriculum, teaching methods, the quality of teachers and the education received by the children.
Birmingham City Council has appointed Ian Kershaw, a former head teacher, to oversee its main inquiry into the Operation Trojan Horse allegations. This also involves Ofsted and the DfE, but includes West Midlands Police and the National Association of Head Teachers. The unions and the council believe the allegations show genuine problems with the system of school governance, especially within academies.
The council has appointed Stephen Rimmer to head a second review group which will involve the education sector, councillors and MPs, faith groups and community leaders. Mr Rimmer is a former Home Office director general, who also led the government's anti-radicalisation strategy Prevent.
The most controversial appointment was that of the former head of the Met's counter terrorism unit, Peter Clarke, as an education commissioner by the secretary of state Michael Gove. His background raised hackles in the predominantly Muslim areas at the heart of the Trojan Horse allegations. It is a community that already feels victimised and isolated.
Even though there have been a number of terror plots uncovered in the same streets, there is anger that the language used by the DfE, which used words like "extremist" and "Islamist", has changed the tone of the story from one which was about school governance to something darker and more sinister.
There have also been mutterings that other government departments were not happy about the timing of this particular announcement, despite an official statement insisting that it was 100% supported.
There is another inquiry which is going on quietly in the background. Accusations have also been made about financial wrongdoing at some of the schools, and the Education Funding Agency is investigating those.
When will we find out out the truth?
Ofsted is likely to publish its reports first. It has carried out inspections at 15 of the 25 schools which are being investigated by the the authorities. They have all been what are commonly referred to as "snap" inspections under Section 8 of the 2005 Education Act, which allows for the re-inspection of schools which are causing concern.
Most last two days and involve the questioning of staff, parents, governors and pupils. The first school to be inspected was Park View Academy on 6 and 7 March. There was a further visit there a week later. That inspection report is overdue, but it's thought Ofsted will wait until reports into the other schools are ready before publishing them altogether. After the Easter break is all that we know for certain.
The Kershaw and Rimmer reviews will publish their findings by the end of the school year in July, but interim reports are expected in early May. The Clarke inquiry is expected to run alongside both of these.
As part of the Rimmer review the Youth Parliament has been commissioned to come up with two pieces of work to answer two questions:
What does a good inclusive education in Birmingham look like? And what does a safe and resilient citizen of the future look like? This is likely to publish during the summer.
There is no firm date for a publication of the EFA findings.