LONDON: Conservative Muslim school leaders in Britain’s second city of Birmingham conducted an “organised campaign” to impose faith-based ideology on their pupils, Education Secretary Michael Gove said yesterday.
Clashes between Muslim governors and non-Muslim senior staff had led to a “culture of fear and intimidation” in which some head-teachers felt forced to leave their jobs, leaving those remaining free to impose a narrow curriculum, the minister said.
Gove was reporting the findings of two official investigations into allegations of an Islamist plot to take over the leadership of state-funded schools in Birmingham with the intention of imposing a religious agenda.
The allegations renewed concerns about the risk to young people in Britain of Islamist extremism, and exposed a rift at the heart of the government about how to tackle religious radicalism.
However, some community leaders in Birmingham, a former industrial centre which has one of Britain’s largest Muslim communities, said the row was baseless and driven by Islamophobia.
Inspections by Ofsted, the schools watchdog, concluded that five schools were providing an “inadequate” standard of education due to failings that the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, said were “deeply worrying”.
“Ofsted states that head teachers reported an organised campaign to target schools in order to alter their character and ethos, with a culture of fear and intimidation,” Gove told the House of Commons.
“Ofsted concluded that governors are trying to impose and promote a narrow, faith-based ideology in what are non-faith schools, specifically by narrowing the curriculum, manipulating staff appointments, and in using school funds inappropriately.”
A separate report by the Education Funding Agency, a branch of the education ministry, revealed that at one school the Muslim call to prayers was broadcast across the playground.
School funds at another, Oldknow Academy in the majority Muslim Small Heath district, were used for an annual trip to Saudi Arabia that was open only to Muslim pupils. The EFA also found that Oldknow had tried to cover up its activities by putting on a special Easter assembly and a lesson on Christianity when inspectors paid their visit.
The educational trust that runs three of the five condemned schools — not including Oldknow — rejected the findings, and reacted angrily to the implication that pupils were at risk of extremism.
David Hughes, vice-chairman of the Park View Education Trust, said: “Ofsted inspectors came to our schools looking for extremism, looking for segregation, looking for proof that our children have religion forced upon them as part of an Islamic plot.
He said “this is categorically not what is happening at our schools. Our schools do not tolerate or promote extremism of any kind”.
The investigations were sparked by an anonymous letter leaked to the media earlier this year, which alleged a “Trojan Horse” plot to take over Birmingham schools.
The government responded by ordering inspections across 21 schools in Birmingham, where 22 percent of the population is Muslim, according to the 2011 census. Although the author of the letter has not been identified, head-teachers from the city have said the concerns raised did not surprise them.
Ofsted condemned the local authority, Birmingham City Council, for failing to respond to repeated concerns by staff about changes being introduced in their schools.
British Premier David Cameron convened a special meeting of the government’s anti-extremism task force yesterday, and promised a “robust response” to the issues raised in the schools’ reports.
Gove pledged to look into unannounced Ofsted inspections and said he would consult on new rules to require all schools to actively promote “British values”, although he did not specify what these were.
However, the government’s response has been undermined by a public spat between Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May, who last week engaged in a media briefing war over who is to blame for extremism in schools.