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Opinion: The hard lessons transforming schools at centre of ‘Trojan Horse’

Opinion: The hard lessons transforming schools at centre of ‘Trojan Horse’

🕔22.Jun 2015

The man who took over chairing Park View School and Trust, seen at the centre of the so called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, reflects on his time trying to turn the school around – amidst intense scrutiny from inspectors and the media. 

When I took up the position as Chair of Park View School in November 2014 a number of people, including seasoned politicians, said to me “that’s a brave step to take” and “are you sure you want to take this?”. To me taking up this high profile and controversial position was a duty as a ‘civic leader’ in the City. At the Lunar Society AGM in July 2014 I gave the inaugural Chairman’s lecture and one of the topics covered in my speech was the controversy of the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, the impact it was having on our City and the schools involved and called for the collective ‘we’ to step forward and take a lead. So, I did.

I resonated with the school and the students; after all I am a British Muslim, from a Pakistani heritage, who went to an inner city comprehensive school. My parents were illiterate and had very little education, therefore statistically I was destined for a life of crime or the dole, but with the inspiration, support and guidance of my teachers – especially Mrs Donaldson – I was able to gain a good education and attend one of the most prestigious universities in the country, the London School of Economics. I had the opportunity to make something of myself; I was determined to ensure the students of Park View would get the best opportunity to have an excellent educational experience on par with the best grammar and private schools.

Park View School was one of three schools in the Park View Education Trust, along with Nansen primary school and Golden Hillock, another secondary school. What quickly emerged was that the previous Trust had no capacity to take on additional schools. The Trust was virtually non-existent. This led to a lack of leadership and investment and poor governance resulting in the issues that were brought to the surface in the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, which I will not rehearse here.

I also found significant issues with safeguarding, narrowing of the curriculum and a culture of inertia. I came into a situation with considerable challenges not least significant numbers of staff, both front line and in leadership positions suspended; Ofsted breathing down our necks; parents concerned about their children’s education; the community feeling under scrutiny; politicians wanting answers and most importantly the children feeling let down by the adults.

I was determined to put things right to fix the issues as quickly as possible, to get Ofsted off our backs so we could get on with providing an excellent educational experience to our children and the community. The first thing was to develop a new narrative for the Trust so we could attract the teachers and leaders we required to provide the education for our children. A few of the Directors sat together to develop the new values, vision and mission of the Trust. We knew we needed to develop a compelling narrative that resonated with our communities, children and the wider world. We came up with the values of Collaboration, Opportunity, Respect and Excellence or CORE, so we used this as our name as it demonstrated what we stood for. So, CORE Education Trust was born.

The Trust also found trying to run three challenging schools was near impossible and the most appropriate solution for Golden Hillock was to look for a new sponsor which could provide the skills, capacity and resources to improve. So, we reached an agreement with ARK, the national academy chain, to transfer the school to them.

We also knew we needed to change the name of Park View, the school that every newspaper and television station uses when there’s a story about ‘Trojan Horse’ or extremism, which is unfair to the students and community to be associated with this narrative. We undertook an extensive consultation process with students, parents, staff and the community to ensure the name was owned by the students and the community. After all, long after we leave, the school and the community will continue.

We ended up with the name ‘Alum Rock’ after an intensive debate at the Board of Directors, as there was no one name that was universally popular. However, the parents and community didn’t resonate with Alum Rock, so we listened to their feedback and went back to the most popular name voted by the students which was ‘Rockwood’. Yes, we did change the name but it’s a sign of leadership to change a decision based on feedback from a key stakeholder group.

I am pleased that we managed to stabilise the school, appoint an excellent Headteacher and senior leaders. I am proud that the school provides a wide range of opportunities for the students including attending a major debate in the City on devolution, having the Lord Lieutenant coming to speak at an assembly and hosting Barak Obama’s Muslim representative whose parting comment was: “this is a quintessential British School”. Everyone that visits the school is impressed with the students, who are polite, dedicated and eager to learn. Our students achieve better than most comparable schools and we will maintain our high record of achievement, despite the extraordinary circumstances we faced.

We have started a cultural change process, but this change will not happen overnight, despite the miracles demanded by Ofsted. Never have I encountered such narrow minded inspectorate than the Ofsted inspectors for Park View. The questioning was extraordinary, intense and unfair. I am happy to be held to account for being in a position of authority, but not being hauled over the coals for something that’s not in my responsibility. I am not the Headteacher, therefore I wouldn’t get involved in the details, but my responsibility was to hold the Headteacher to account. The fact that the Chair of Governors was involved in the detail previously and was criticised seemed to have bypassed the inspectors.

I can take the intense scrutiny of Ofsted, after all they need to justify their role. What I found disappointing and hurtful was the unjustified press coverage by the Birmingham Mail. There was no reason to drag my past out to attack me and my integrity because I took the bold move of stepping up to the plate when most people were running a mile the other way! I have held high profile positions in the City, but never has the Birmingham Mail dragged up my past before. What this demonstrated was the Birmingham Mail’s agenda of continuing to exploit the negative narrative of ‘Trojan Horse’.

I have mulled in my mind over and over again the causes of this negativity. Whatever the reasons, the damage the article has done to mine and more importantly the Trust’s reputation is untold. Thanks to the Mail we have been dragged back rather than being given the opportunity to put things right and to see through the changes we have started.

I readily admit to having made a mistake as a young man, paid the price and have gone on to fulfil a number of roles in public life. My record was fully declared to all relevant authorities before being appointed a governor and director. By bringing up old news and putting it under a sensationalist headline is irresponsible and ends up playing to those interests in society which will only be too pleased to see the worst in a British Muslim and in one of our city’s most challenging communities.

I hope my experience is a lesson to the students at the new Rockwood, that children from challenging backgrounds can achieve at school and, even when you make a mistake, it can make you better and stronger. Plus, whether intense scrutiny comes from a regulator or the press, it should make you even more determined to achieve your objectives.

Waheed Saleem was the Chair of Park View School from November 2014 to May 2015 and is currently the Chair of CORE Education Trust. He holds a number of leadership positions in the City and nationally including Chairman of the Lunar Society, Vice President of the Institute of Asian Businesses, Non-Executive Director Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Trust and a Trustee of NACRO.

This article has been amended since its first publication. 

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