Mark Rogers: the stupidest Trojan Horse response yet?

Photo: JOE GIDDENS/PA

On his official council blog, under the headline “Birmingham bites back”, the city council’s chief executive, Mark Rogers, has penned an extraordinary and inflammatory attack on Ofsted and the Government for pursuing a “contrived” agenda that “mislabels decent, upright, devout and loyal Muslim communities as ‘extremists’ and, as a corollary, terrorists in the making … we cannot allow whole communities to be pilloried for the misdemeanours of a few.”

It’s hard to overstate the stupidity and irresponsibility of this from someone in Mr Rogers’ high office. First, of course, it is simply a lie. No one, let alone “whole communities,” has been mislabelled as “extremist” or a “terrorist in the making” by Ofsted or anyone else.

A handful of individuals have been correctly labelled as extremists by journalists (me included) but none by Ofsted or the Government. No one has been labelled as a would-be terrorist by anyone, ever. Most importantly, of course, no statements whatsoever have been made by the Government or anyone else that the whole Muslim community in Birmingham is extremist or terrorist.

Indeed, most of the coverage, mine included, has made clear that large sections of the community in Alum Rock opposed the hardline agenda pursued in the schools. Not all Muslims are “devout,” as Mr Rogers seems to think. It is significant that he defines Muslim people, unlike any other people, through the prism of their faith.

The claim that a whole community has been accused of proto-terrorism is a straw man that even the worst Socialist Workers’ Party frothers in the Hands off Birmingham Schools campaign haven’t yet tried. But Mr Rogers is chief executive of the city council, and one of the duties of that council is presumably to promote community cohesion. His words can only harm community cohesion by giving succour to those who want to persuade the whole Muslim community that they are under attack by a racist establishment. And if anyone has associated Birmingham Muslims with terrorism, it’s now him.

Mr Rogers’ other straw man – which the council leader, Sir Albert Bore, and various equally dim luminaries also tried in some of the papers at the weekend – is to claim that any attack on the city council as a despicable slander on Birmingham itself. The chief executive of the city’s chamber of commerce, Jerry Blackett, accused the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, of making a “full-on attack on the city of Birmingham” over the affair. No he didn’t – he attacked the council (in fairly careful terms). And he was right to.

The fact is that the city council has long been recognised as part of Birmingham’s problem. As the former Labour Education Minister and Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis (one of many critics) put it long before Trojan Horse in his seminal lecture to the Birmingham Lunar Society in 2011, it “needs to raise its game significantly in terms of leadership, performance and strategy”.

Adonis described the council’s strategic leadership as “weak” and its education department as “inward-looking,” qualities which have been on full display over Trojan Horse. The council has only itself to blame for that debacle. The fact that it blew up was due not to nasty journalists or conniving neo-con Ofsted inspectors (have I got that right Mark?), but to the council’s total refusal over many years to listen to the increasingly desperate complaints of its own staff. (And it’s no good complaining that the schools in question are academies – most were under council control until less than a year ago.)

If the council had acted on their complaints, they wouldn’t have needed to come to the press. Even when they did, the public response of Mr Rogers and others continued to be complete denial (there was no plot, he said in April, merely “new communities” demanding changes to the “liberal educational system”. For Mr Rogers’ information, the Pakistani community has been in Birmingham for the last 45 years.)

As I’ve said before, it’s really telling when people have to create straw man charges to defend themselves. It means that they have no defence to the real charges. Look forward to a similar exercise from the council’s Kershaw review this month.

More strategically, I can’t help wondering whether the council’s latest burst of denial is sensible when there is serious talk of taking some of its functions away. Does it actually want to be emasculated?

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Trojan Horse: schools erect a straw man

One of the oldest tactics by wrongdoers and their allies is to ignore the actual allegations made against them and instead misrepresent the charges as ones they can truthfully deny. With grinding obviousness, that’s precisely what the “Trojan Horse” schools in Birmingham are doing now.

In a letter published in (where else) the Guardian, a group of the schools’ supporters announce the launch of the “Putting Birmingham Schoolkids First” campaign to “challenge the false and divisive allegation that [Trojan Horse] is a problem of systematic radicalisation, extremism or terrorism.”

The latter is a particularly brazen straw man. I think we can all agree that none of the schools ever taught their pupils how to make bombs and that no one in Birmingham became a terrorist as a result of a segregated biology lesson. But these were, of course, things which no one ever alleged for a second. Nor, in fact, did the Government reports which will result next month in the removal of the schools’ leadership accuse them of systematically promoting radicalisation or extremism.

The letter continues: “The central allegation, that there was an organised plot to radicalise schoolchildren in a handful of Birmingham schools, remains unproven.” Hold on – you said it was “false” only the previous sentence! And it wasn’t the “central allegation” either.

As we have documented, there is clear evidence of extremism at some of the Trojan Horse schools. According to on-the-record testimony, the man who is now (until next month, anyway) head of Park View, Mozz Hussain, described the US in assemblies as the “evil in the world” and the “cause of all famine.” The Arabic teacher at Oldknow, Asif Khan, led children in anti-Christian chanting. An al-Qaeda-sympathising preacher, Shady al-Suleiman, was invited to Park View on November 28 2013. (The school’s assistant head, Lee Donaghy, told MPs that they did not know of his extremist views, something which takes about thirty seconds to find on Google.)

But extremism is not the same as terrorism; and as we’ve also said, extremism was only one strand of what went on at Park View, Oldknow and the rest. The real central finding, in the words of Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools, was of an “organised campaign” targeting schools in Birmingham to impose a “narrow, faith-based ideology”, with the same people “highly influential across several of the schools”.

A “culture of fear and intimidation” had developed in several of the schools, with “headteachers, including those with a proud record of raising standards… marginalised or forced out of their jobs”. There had been a “breakdown in trust” between staff and governors, who had “sought to make changes to the curriculum on the basis of their own personal beliefs”, with girls and boys “not treated equally”, music in one school removed from the curriculum against pupils’ wishes, and the children’s experiences “restricted”, making them “vulnerable to segregation and emotional dislocation from wider society”.

No reference whatever is made to these charges in the “putting Birmingham schoolkids first” letter, presumably because they are rather harder to refute.

The campaign held a public meeting last week at which, by all accounts, a number of even sillier straw men were erected. Sir Tim Brighouse, the former Birmingham education chief on whose watch the problems started, sent a video message saying that “we are in the middle of a fever that equates being a Muslim with extremism.” Who outside the ranks of the far right has said this?

There were also the routine charges of “Islamophobia,” an “anti-Muslim agenda” and the “victimisation of the Muslim community.” This last was made by a councillor called Jess Phillips who fights for the rights of women – except, it seems, the right of women not to be made to “sit at the back of the class or round the sides” at these schools.

A number of other Birmingham councillors were at the meeting and the straw man tactic has also been much favoured by Birmingham council. Its initial response to the Trojan Horse letter was to refer it to the police anti-terrorist squad, even though it contained no allegation of terrorism – again presumably so it could be dismissed. Watch out for a similar tactic in the report of the council’s Kershaw inquiry into the affair.

“Communities across Birmingham now believe that their children’s educational potential and wellbeing is being threatened by politicians, who wish to be seen as ‘tough’ on Muslims,” says Hands off Birmingham Schools. How, I wonder, do the signatories know what “communities across Birmingham” now believe? Have they asked them – or has the assumption been made, as it was by the schools, that Muslim parents, unlike any other sorts of parents, “must” want a narrowly conservative, religious education for their children?

The more anyone has to play these kinds of games, the clearer it becomes that their cause is in deep trouble.

PS: Perhaps the most nauseating part of the meeting last week was when even a five-year-old boy called Ben was lifted up to the rostrum to read out yet another straw-man argument (see video above). “Some people come from different countries to this country, and that’s OK,” he said. “And whatever they want to eat, and whatever they want to wear, and whether they want to play or not, that’s OK as well. But it’s not OK for mean governments to stop them from doing all that stuff.” It went down a storm with the crowd – but nobody’s ever suggested stopping people from wearing or eating anything, or forcing them to play. More importantly, it risked looking like a textbook example of the kind of child manipulation that this whole saga has been about. How many 5-year-olds do you know that spontaneously talk about “mean governments?”

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