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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Trojan Horse: how The Guardian ignored and misrepresented evidence of Islamism in schools

Why did this happen?

There’s a lot of bad journalism about Muslims in this country, but not all of it is at the tabloid “Islamic-only toilets” end of the market. On the subject of the hardline takeover of Birmingham schools, I think The Guardian may be Britain’s most dishonest newspaper.

It’s a very good paper in some ways – but it has a complete blind spot about any story involving Islamists. Its coverage of Tower Hamlets has been spectacularly misleading. And the reporting on Trojan Horse by its education editor, Richard Adams, has been execrable.

Mr Adams now pronounces the entire saga a “crude witch-hunt” based on “not much evidence of anything,” claiming that “most” of the allegations of “segregated classes, compulsory prayers and incendiary preachers at school assemblies … have crumbled under examination.”

The evidence of “incendiary preachers at school assemblies” – Sheikh Shady al-Suleiman, an al-Qaeda sympathiser, at Park View School on November 28 2013 – in fact comes from one of the school’s official newsletters, still available on its own website (see photo above, from page 17 of this PDF).

At another of the schools, Oldknow, an official Education Funding Agency report finds that the Arabic teacher, Asif Khan, led anti-Christian chanting in assemblies (though also records his denial). I too have been told about Mr Khan’s anti-Christian assembly by four separate sources, one of them on the record. There is other on-the-record testimony that Park View’s head, Mozz Hussain, preached “mind-blowing” anti-American assemblies.

The evidence of “segregated classes” comes from both this EFA report and another one, into Park View, Nansen and Golden Hillock schools, leaked to me, which states that “teachers gave [students] seats in which to sit in class by gender to avoid having to mix” and that “students told us that they were required to sit in the places which they were given by teachers,” often with “boys sitting towards the front of the class and girls at the back or around the sides.” The relevant sections of the report are published on this blog.

At Golden Hillock, according to the EFA, non-Muslim pupils “had to teach themselves” in one subject. At Nansen, there is compulsory Arabic (in a primary school!) and no teaching of the arts for one entire year group. Nansen’s deputy head, Razwan Faraz, is administrator of a group called “Educational Activists” which also includes key staff and governors from several of the other schools and which pursues, in Mr Faraz’s words, an “Islamising agenda” in Birmingham’s schools. Park View’s chair of governors, Tahir Alam, is co-author of a document which calls for the teaching of art, drama and dance to Muslims to be restricted and Muslim girls to be veiled in school.

Non-Muslim heads at five schools in a tiny area of Birmingham have left their jobs in the last six months. The general secretary of the headteachers’ union, Russell Hobby, says the union has found “concerted efforts” by hardliners to infiltrate Birmingham schools, is working with 30 of its members in 12 schools and has “serious concerns” about six of them – the same six being placed into special measures. Another of the schools targeted, Adderley, has released an official statement confirming that its head, a moderate Muslim, and other heads have been subjected to “malicious and targeted campaigns to remove them.

Now I have no problem with taking a position on a story. I’ve taken a clear position on this one. By definition, all investigative journalism does that – whether it’s saying that Richard Nixon was a crook, or that News International hacked people’s phones. I accept, too, that different people can honestly hold different views.

But whatever you say has to be true to the best of your knowledge and belief. It has to be backed up by evidence. And it has to take proper account of any evidence against what you are reporting. You have to be sure that it does not outweigh the evidence in favour.

Over the last few months, I’ve carefully read all the “evidence against” that Mr Adams has produced in his exhaustive investigative researches. It appears to consist largely of making escorted trips to the schools concerned during which he spoke only to pupils and staff chosen by the management – an exercise summed up by one of the commenters under his own article as “Everyone was happy on our state guided tour of North Korea.

Another Guardian effort was the letter, splashed on by the paper, from what it described as 20 “educational experts” attacking Ofsted for changing its judgment on the schools since they were last inspected. “It is beyond belief,” said the experts, “that schools which were judged less than a year ago to be ‘outstanding’ are now widely reported as ‘inadequate,’ despite having the same curriculum, the same students, the same leadership team and the same governing body.”

Beyond belief indeed: in fact, only two of the schools, Park View and Oldknow, were previously judged “oustanding,” and neither of them have the same leadership team as when previously inspected. As we have reported, Oldknow’s head, Bhupinder Kondal, was driven out earlier this year, and three of her five assistant or deputy heads have also left. At Park View, the executive head, Lindsey Clark, has retired, telling Ofsted that she was marginalised. Nor is it “less than a year” since these schools were previously inspected. Park View was previously inspected in January 2012 and Oldknow in January 2013.

The letter’s signatories, incidentally, include Ibrahim Hewitt, who (as you wouldn’t know from The Guardian) has written a book calling for adulterers to be stoned to death and gays to be given a hundred lashes – and in his spare time chairs a charity, Interpal, branded a “specially designated global terrorist” by the US Treasury. (Interpal’s ever-vigilant lawyers always insist we add that in the UK, the Charity Commission did not find against Interpal.)

Then there are those well-known educational experts Massoud Shadjareh, a political activist who criticised the “demonisation” of Abu Hamza; Arzu Merali, who is expecting a new “Spanish Inquisition” against Muslims; Farooq Murad, head of the Islamist-dominated leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain and ex-chair of a charity, Muslim Aid, which has funded terrorist groups; and Salma Yaqoob, former leader of the Respect party and a pyschotherapist by profession.

There are some signatories without Islamist sympathies and with actual educational credentials, but the main one, Professor Tim Brighouse, is perhaps a tiny bit tainted by the fact that he used to run Birmingham education authority at the time the Trojan Horse plot was grinding into gear in his schools. (There’s also a man, M G Khan, who, though The Guardian coyly neglects to mention this, is a governor of one of the schools being put into special measures!)

The other problem with the argument that “Ofsted used to like us” is that it feels a little bit like, say, Lehman Brothers protesting that the Financial Services Authority didn’t raise any concerns in the years before it went bust. Regulators often miss the great scandals. That’s partly why they become scandals. Several of these inspections were conducted in the halcyon days when Ofsted gave schools 48 hours’ notice – easily long enough for them to put on a show, as they did for Mr Adams. In short, none of the “evidence against” the story presented by the schools or The Guardian carries anything like enough weight to overcome the mass of evidence in the story’s favour.

I’d like to say it’s nice that the cynical old trade of news still has room for people like Richard Adams, prepared to think the best of everyone and take at face value whatever he’s told. But I think he’s done more than that – he’s ignored evidence, or misrepresented it as “crumbling” if it doesn’t fit his version of events. That’s not just bad journalism, but a betrayal of the liberal and progressive values The Guardian is supposed to fight for.

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'Trojan Horse' schools: the leaked inspectors' report

Here are extracts from the inspection report, leaked to the Telegraph, into three schools at the centre of the so-called “Trojan Horse” plot to “Islamise” secular state schools in Birmingham. The schools are Park View, Golden Hillock, and Nansen, all part of the Park View Educational Trust. This inspection was carried out by the Department for Education last month. Separate inspections were carried out by Ofsted, many of which, as we report today, are also damning.

As you will see, the report substantiates many of the claims which the schools have for the last six weeks been furiously denying as a “witch-hunt.”

The extracts confirm that

– there is compulsory “gender segregation” in classes at Park View and Golden Hillock, “often with boys sitting towards the front of the class and girls at the back or around the sides.” (page 17)

– The school has consistently claimed that any segregation was voluntary but as the report makes clear, in a number of classes “students told us that they were required to sit in the places which they were given by teachers” (page 17) and “teachers gave [students] seats in which to sit in class by gender to avoid having to mix” (p10)

– some non-Muslim pupils at Golden Hillock have to “teach themselves” in a GCSE subject (page 18)

– an “extremist” speaker “sympathetic to al-Qaeda” addressed students at Park View (page 16);

– there is no humanities, arts or music teaching at Nansen in Year 6 and only “limited” teaching of these subjects in Year 5 (page 17);

– the teaching of some GCSE subjects was “restricted to comply with a conservative Islamic teaching” (page 10);

– in biology, a teacher had “briefly delivered the theory of evolution to comply with the syllabus, but had told students ‘this is not what we believe;’’ that reproduction was not covered in class, even though pupils needed it for their GCSEs; that students believed “as Muslims they were not allowed to study matters such as reproduction with the opposite sex” (page 10).

Further extracts including more of the quotes used in our story on Saturday will be published later.

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'Outstanding' head teacher allegedly targeted by Muslim radicals confirms that she's retiring

Lindsey Clark: retiring despise her success (Photo: BMP)

Lindsey Clark, the respected executive head of Park View, one of the Birmingham schools targeted in the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot by Muslim radicals, has confirmed that she is to retire. She becomes the fifth non-Muslim headteacher to leave one of the schools linked to the plot over the last six months. The others are Balwant Bains (Saltley), Tina Ireland (Regent’s Park), Bhupinder Kondal (Oldknow),  and Peter Slough (Small Heath). A sixth head, Golden Hillock’s Matthew Scarrott, left a little earlier.

Mrs Clark’s retirement, first revealed by me three weeks ago, was confirmed in the school’s spring term newsletter, published online yesterday. As I have described, the replacement of secular, non-Muslim heads has been a key goal of the radicals leading the campaign.

Mrs Clark, who was awarded the OBE last year for her work in taking Park View to the highest Ofsted ranking, “outstanding,” in 2012, told Ofsted inspectors probing her school last month that she had been marginalised by Tahir Alam, the hardline chair of governors at Park View, and the school’s principal, effectively its number two, Mohammed “Moz” Hussain. The school’s leadership and management have now been dropped to “inadequate” by Ofsted in a report expected soon.

As we reported on Sunday, a former department head at Park View, Nigel Sloan, says he witnessed Mr Hussain giving “mind-blowing anti-Western propaganda” assemblies to pupils at the school, including claims that the Americans were “the evil in the world” and “the cause of all famine.” Mr Hussain is now a candidate to replace Mrs Clark.

The same issue of the newsletter includes an attack by Dave Hughes, Park View Education Trust’s only non-Muslim director, on Mr Sloan – essentially the predictable charge of racism that the school’s defenders have been wheeling out since the beginning. Mr Hughes is also booked on BBC WM radio this morning to spread the word that it’s all Islamophobic lies.

It’s not very surprising, perhaps, that a member of the leadership team branded “inadequate” should dispute his own inadequacy. Interestingly, however, for all its huffing and puffing, Mr Hughes’ article doesn’t specifically deny the charge that Nigel Sloan makes. Just thought I’d point that out.

PS  Park View’s newsletters are always good value – last term’s (p17) was where I found out that the school hosted an extremist preacher, Sheikh Shady al-Suleiman, at “an extended Islamic assembly” on 28 November. As well as organising an event with the al-Qaeda ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, the good Sheikh believes in the death penalty for extramarital sex – and don’t even get him started on gays! Just the man to back up Mr Hughes’ claim that Park View is “preparing [its pupils] for multicultural Britain.”