Inside the Trojan Horse

Chris Cook
Policy editor, BBC Newsnight

Park View School in Birmingham which is being investigated as part of allegations of a hardline Islamist takeover plot at a number of Birmingham schoolsImage source, PA
Image caption,
The most high-profile of the schools caught up in the claims, Park View, has rejected the allegations

Right now, there are four investigations going on into Birmingham schools, following on from the so-called "Trojan Horse" letter. That document claimed to outline a plot by Muslim hardliners to take over some Birmingham schools.

Ofsted, the Department for Education (DfE), West Midlands Police and Birmingham City Council are, between them, looking at 25 schools. Reports from those investigations are starting to seep out. But it is worth quickly recapping where we now are:

• The focus is not on a "conspiracy". The "Trojan Horse" letter is now widely assumed to be a forgery, and appears to have been written to alarm people. (If the document is genuine, the plotters are not competent). Even so, it highlighted real concerns.

• There is worry - principally among some local liberal Muslims - about the influence of some religious conservatives in schools. In Birmingham, the majority of Muslims are from the relatively relaxed Barelvi grouping. The conservatives attend mosques that are described as Salafi, Wahabi and Deobandi.

• There is also a particular focus on one clique of friends. The chair of governors and head teacher at Park View School are the core of a group of about a dozen people who are local governors and teachers. Inspections will need to deal with claims of nepotism (NB - teachers always think there is nepotism going on).

• Some of the schools are definitely now socially conservative. There is, however, parental support for that attitude. You can see that in how heavily subscribed Park View School is, for example.

• Lots of non-Muslims in the city support the schools. For some, such as their fans at the council, it is because they want schools to cater to what parents want. For others, including some who work in the schools, it is because they think the ethos helps drive up results. And Park View, in particular, gets spectacularly strong results.

• But hardline religious conservatism alone can cause problems. If a school's centre of gravity is far off-centre, it may attract staff with rather odd, extreme views. Newsnight has revealed how some teachers at Park View School had - contrary to school policy - taught creationism as science and that wives had no right to refuse sex to their husbands.

Media caption,

Newsnight's Chris Cook speaks to two teachers from Park View School

• There is also concern that hard-line conservatism can create the underpinnings for radicalisation. Newsnight has also revealed that three people at Birmingham schools - two at Park View - were reported to the authorities in 2010 for having crossed into extremism.

• That potential for crossover is also why the authorities do not treat Islam as it does other religions. The past few weeks has reaffirmed that. Recent examples of Jewish creationism, for example, have not fostered the same concerns. They are dealt with in a very different way.

• The government spends a lot of money in the West Midlands on counter-extremism. This machinery has been monitoring some of the people involved in this story for years. That explains part of why there is hostility among officials to Peter Clarke, the DfE's investigator into the issue. He's stepping on a lot of toes. The fact that his background is in counter-terrorism has annoyed local Muslims, too, who see this as an issue about the role of religion in schools.

It is worth pointing out a few other things:

• This is turning into another argument about academies. Labour wants to point out that academies - all 3,849 of them - are monitored from Whitehall. And the DfE is struggling with this role. Some of the schools being investigated, however, are under LA oversight.

• The events in Birmingham highlight a dilemma for school choice advocates. Setting aside the more extreme stuff, the atmosphere at some of these schools is what some parents are after. There is strong demand for a traditional moral core to local schools.

• Parental choice goes beyond the state sector. Some local parents wouldn't trust more liberal schools. This would affect girls, in particular. Blunt secularisation might lead to more pupils going to one of the nine private Muslim girls' schools in Birmingham - which are less liberal.

• The English school system is quite weird. In some cases, what is alleged to be happening would be acceptable or expected in faith state schools, but not in a normal school. In those cases, some of these worries might feel more like legal pedantry than a grand scandal.