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Chief executive’s leaked Trojan Horse comments pose more serious questions about Council management

Chief executive’s leaked Trojan Horse comments pose more serious questions about Council management

🕔12.May 2014

We recently made reference to a suggestion that more comments on the Trojan Horse crisis might be ill advised ahead of a set of investigations reporting back. We reached much the same conclusion… until this weekend.   Chief blogger Paul Dale takes stock of the latest developments as reported in some of yesterday’s media. We held back from publishing this post yesterday to provide the city council – and its chief executive – with time to comment. But a spokeswoman confirmed this morning that the council would not be commenting.  

He’s not yet been three months at his desk, but it would be understandable if Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers is hankering after the tranquil waters of his previous post in Solihull where controversy never rages far beyond arguments about building in the green belt.

It is true that the head of Britain’s largest public authority inherited the Trojan Horse mess.

The city council knew about an alleged plot by militant Muslims to infiltrate city schools last November, but did little to investigate until forced to do so when letters detailing the ‘plot’ were published in the Birmingham Mail.

The way the council has played the issue since February has been little short of disastrous. It has been an example of how not to do crisis management. A car crash in real time, never mind slow motion.

The local authority began with a line that the Trojan Horse letters were a forgery and defamatory. This developed into a version of ‘nothing to see here, move along’.

This was taken a step further by Mr Rogers in an interview with Chamberlain Files in which he sought to present claims of Islamic hardliners infiltrating schools as a little local difficulty. There was no plot, merely “new communities” raising legitimate questions and challenges” to the “liberal education system”, Mr Rogers claimed.

His comments, although naïve, were made in good faith in the early days of his tenure.

But Mr Rogers’ explanation was reported in several national newspapers and by the BBC, and his attempt to down-play Trojan Horse will have been noted by the Department for Education.

It is obvious now that Trojan Horse is a rather more complex animal than it seemed at first glance. There is probably no city-wide sinister plot to radicalise children, although this will not be confirmed until Education Commissioner Peter Clarke, the former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism expert, publishes his inquiry in the summer.

It has emerged over the past few weeks that Ofsted has uncovered worrying examples of bad practice in the 21 Birmingham schools it has inspected. In particular, the way governing bodies have changed with the replacement of moderates by hard-liners is something that Ofsted will highlight.

We know, thanks to leaked Ofsted reports and the evidence given by former teachers, governors and parents, that conservative Islamic teaching has been forced into some classrooms and that heads and teachers opposed to this have left their jobs. We also know there is a history of claims about inappropriate teaching methods in inner city schools going back at least a decade. These claims were largely ignored by the council.

In fact, we now know much more thanks to another strategic blunder by Birmingham City Council.

A ‘secret’ meeting was held last week at which Mr Rogers and Children’s Director Peter Hay briefed head teachers on the latest Trojan Horse developments. The heads were warned that on no account must anything said in the room be repeated.

Mr Hay, a man with much on his plate since he is also responsible for Birmingham’s failing children’s social services department, began the meeting by calling for absolute secrecy, adding: “this isn’t something we would put into the public domain”.

So, as might have been anticipated, someone recorded the entire meeting and leaked a transcript to the BBC and national newspapers. In particular, Andrew Gilligan of the Sunday Telegraph, the man the city council loves to hate, received a copy and gave the contents big licks in his column.

It is clear from Mr Rogers’ comments that he expects publication of Ofsted’s reports into the 21 schools to inflict massive damage on the council. A “firestorm” and a “knockout blow”, in fact. The possibility of Birmingham City Council losing direct control of schools cannot be discounted, and there will be “significant structural” changes.

This much may have been expected. But what stands out in Gilligan’s report is Mr Rogers’ outspoken, but most unwise, attack on Education Secretary Michael Gove and on Ofsted chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Mr Rogers is quoted as saying: “We don’t know exactly what Mr Gove will do [in response to the reports] but we don’t expect it to be moderate and considered.” On the matter of leaks to the press he  reportedly reminded his audience who Mr Gove’s wife works for (Sarah Vine at the Daily Mail) and noted that Mr Gove used to be a Times journalist. Hint, hint, eh?

It is safe to assume that Mr Gove and Ms Vine are readers of the Sunday Telegraph, or at the very least will have the article pointed out to them. It is also undeniable that this is the wrong time for Birmingham’s leaders to be annoying Mr and Mrs Gove.

Quite apart from Trojan Horse and its ramifications, Mr Gove will soon have to decide whether Birmingham council is fit to continue running children’s social care, or whether it ought to revert to commissioning services from the voluntary and private sector. One imagines that the Education Secretary has a file marked ‘Birmingham’ on his desk, which is growing thicker by the week.

Mr Rogers was asked by some head teachers whether they should be running the Government’s anti-terrorism Prevent programme at their schools. That in itself was a curious question since the Prevent Strategy, approved by MPs, does indeed require schools to play their part.

Mr Rogers’ answer, as reported, was hardly a ringing endorsement of Prevent. He commented that this might be an appropriate thing to do but would “play to the Telegraph, to the Secretary of State and to Michael Wilshaw”.

It is odd that a senior local government officer would venture to make such overtly political comments at a meeting where it was always likely that anything controversial would find its way into the public domain. And this, also, from a council whose stock line to the national media on Trojan Horse is “we can’t comment while inquiries are going on”.

In Mr Rogers’ defence, a source close to the chief executive suggested the briefing of head teachers had been a “noble” thing to do, although there is now a realisation that even those in positions of responsibility cannot be relied upon to maintain confidentiality where Trojan Horse matters are concerned.

Crunch time is fast approaching for the council. Ofsted’s reports on the 21 schools are expected to be published early next month, with an overview document setting out the watchdog’s main findings.

The Trojan Horse saga raises many questions, but this latest revelation poses yet two more. What did Rogers and Hay hope to achieve in making such comments and did they – both users of the microblogging platform Twitter – really think such remarks would not to make their way to the media in one form or another?

Naive – a word used by Council insiders – might be the understatement of the year.

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