Trojan Horse affair – “Lies and conspiracies set schools back at least 10 years”
Kamal Hanif reflects on his experiences as a school leader on the front lines at the time of the Trojan Horse affair
In the autumn of 2003, I started my new role as deputy headteacher at Park View School – the school that became the centre of the Trojan Horse affair.
On the day of my interview, a member of staff came up to the candidates and handed us all a letter. I didn’t read it, but some did, and they rescinded their applications. As I understand, the letter was offensive about the community and staff from ethnic minorities – and about Muslims in particular – stating that they were going to ‘take over the school’.
This resulted in a number of court hearings against the school. I could see the terrible toll it took on the headteacher, Lindsey Clark, who stood against racist behaviour.
As deputy headteacher of the school, I saw tensions starting to rise in the Birmingham suburb of Alum Rock against the Somali community. You would hear comments such as, ‘They are taking over our businesses and shops’ – a repeat of the old rhetoric that the local British Pakistani community had faced in the 1970s. Developing community cohesion became a priority at the school.
Lindsey had done her utmost to support the students, recognising their religion and culture and giving them a broad and rounded education. Having come from a senior role in a girls’ school, she was a very strong advocate for girls’ education.
We developed a culturally inclusive curriculum which recognised excellence from all cultures. Lindsey was passionate about having a broad curriculum. She had appointed a new music teacher to work with the LA music service to develop a programme that was more inclusive of wider musical and cultural influences. This initiative became extremely popular with the students; you could still see evidence of its impact in 2014, when I was asked to go in and help with the Trojan Horse issues.
It was difficult to maintain a balance between conventional approaches to curriculum development in the arts, and broadening them out to reflect Islamic musical and cultural traditions, but most importantly, it was about bridging the gap between home and school.
Healthy to aspire
Some Park View staff clearly held racist and bigoted views. I recall a member of staff talking within earshot of me about a social event for ‘White colleagues’, and how she ‘enjoyed being racist’. Later, the same individual brought a grievance through her union, claiming that it was ‘threatening for White women to have a Muslim deputy headteacher because of 9/11’.
She also questioned how I could be leading on literacy – despite having written several publications – because I had English as an additional language. She did not know that I grew up in a household with my brother and his English wife, and that Urdu was not my strongest language.
Tensions were evident amongst staff across the school. For example, colleagues in the English department would try to aggravate their co-workers in the maths department around the thorny issues of religion and racism. A White male teacher in the maths department was seen as a ‘traitor’ for supporting his Muslim colleagues.
As Muslim staff at the school were experiencing racism, they felt they had to do more to have their religion, identity and culture respected by developing a stronger emphasis on cultural inclusion. The LA was also doing work to address the underachievement of minority ethnic groups, and with input from the national strategies, reduce racial tensions and barriers.
As a school, we were sharing our successes and good practice with the LA’s Asian Heritage Achievement Group, and the school even presented ideas at a conference looking at the underachievement of Pakistani boys. But despite all of this great work, it was clear that there was not a broad understanding across the city on how to develop inclusive pedagogy in our schools.
The fruits of our success were slowly coming together, as the students began to become more aspirational and develop a sense of belonging. They understood that religion was more about guiding how they would live their lives, and that they could therefore be both British and Muslim as British Muslims. They became more resilient.
They respected others’ cultures, ways of life and clothing. Friendship groups recognised that not everyone will wear the hijab or the thobe. We saw excellent results as girls started to perform better than boys in subjects and exams. We worked with young boys who were often under pressure to conform to ‘street culture’, or who would be bullied if they were performing well at school. We reaffirmed with them that it is healthy to aspire and to move into careers their parents would not have dreamed about.
Aftermath and recovery
What is not often talked about is the damage the Trojan Horse affair did to the local community. Lies and conspiracies set schools in the area back at least 10 years, because the destabilisation led to difficulties in recruiting staff and governors.
Around this time I faced considerable racist behaviour from some teaching union reps because of my submissions, and I did not receive responses to my letters of complaint to their executive officers. A systematic campaign to incite my staff to rebel and remove me from my job took off, simply because I was Muslim and therefore must be part of a clandestine conspiracy to turn my school into a Muslim enclave.
Local representation in the years preceding the Trojan Horse affair was an issue for school governors. As governing bodies changed, and local community members fought for the rights of their students, there were often challenging debates about how poorly the predominantly British Pakistani students were doing at school. During my time at Park View, governance was fair, free, liberal and inclusive.
Yet still to this day, in other schools I often hear comments from school leaders on how, if a BAME individual raises a valid point, they are perceived as an ‘extremist’ or ‘troublemaker’. School leaders need to engage with the communities they serve – walk the streets around the school and engage in events with other local stakeholders, rather than just commute between school and home. This could make a huge difference.
The majority of governors in the Trojan Horse schools and in the east end of the city worked to secure changes which led to big improvements in student outcomes up to 2014. They networked and learnt from each other, shared best practice and wanted the voice of parents to be heard.
Trojan Horse – by which I mean the actions of a small number of governors and the way things were inflamed by Michael Gove – had the opposite effect, and caused unforeseen damage to the local schools and communities, which are still recovering.
A key focus of Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework has been the curriculum and curriculum intent. This has provided the opportunity to look once again at race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, age, equality and excellence from the perspective of all communities, and re-examine our own biases and prejudices. I am told constantly by students that the curriculum is not relevant to them, because it doesn’t include their stories and experiences.
The teaching of fundamental British values has often been misconstrued and corrupted into teaching exclusively about Britain. As long as that continues, being of Birmingham, as opposed to being in Birmingham, will remain a problem.
Kamal Hanif has held various roles in education since 1992 and is a former CEO of the Waverley Education Foundation Trust; he is currently a national leader of education, a trustee of the charity SINCE 9/11 and sits on the DfE’s Due Diligence and Countering Extremism Group
This article is based on an extract from the essay ‘Growing up in Birmingham: place and identity’, which appears in The Birmingham Book: Lessons in urban education leadership and policy from the Trojan Horse affair, edited by Colin Diamond (Crown House Publishing, £18.99)