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Religious tensions stirred up by Trojan Horse still unresolved, admits Birmingham education chief

Religious tensions stirred up by Trojan Horse still unresolved, admits Birmingham education chief

🕔20.Apr 2016

For four years Brigid Jones has weathered a raging storm as Birmingham city council cabinet member for children’s services. In an exclusive interview with Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale she speaks frankly about the Trojan Horse affair and the ‘dangers’ of turning all schools into academies.

What is the difference between children at a Roman Catholic school being told by teachers to pray and Muslim school children being summoned by the traditional Islamic call to prayer?

It is a good question, and one that verges deep into issues stirred up by the Trojan Horse affair.

Brigid Jones, cabinet member for children’s services since 2012, answers her own question. The difference, she explains, is that the great Birmingham public is generally happy to sanction faith arrangements for Catholic children, but not for Muslims.

You had kids having the call to prayer at some of the Trojan Horse schools, but if you go to a Catholic school you may have a bell calling you to Mass. We are OK with Catholics being called to pray but not OK with Muslims. Catholic kids might go on a school trip to Lourdes, which is quite a common pilgrimage, but we are not OK with Muslim kids going to the Haj.

Cllr Jones stresses that this should not be interpreted as her being in any way dismissive of the Trojan Horse affair. She insists she realised immediately the allegations – that ultra-conservative Islamists were infiltrating governing bodies at several schools – were extremely serious and could impact badly on Birmingham, although a number of her fellow councillors and council officers were inclined to put their heads in the sand and hope the trouble would simply pass by.

I knew how serious Trojan Horse was going to be the moment I read the letters. Getting other people to take it seriously was a big challenge for me.

Trojan Horse exploded into a national news story early in 2013, a few months after Cllr Jones became the surprise choice for children’s services cabinet member after Labour regained control of the city council the previous year. She was barely 25, had no previous experience of being in the cabinet, and had only been a councillor for a year.

A fiercely intelligent physics graduate with experience of student politics at Birmingham University, Jones contested Selly Oak at the 2011 council elections. “It was a no hope seat for us,” she recalls. Except, it turned out not to be hopeless after all and Jones duly took the seat for Labour.

“That was quite a difficult conversation with my boss the next day,” she admits.

Trojan Horse may be done and dusted as far as the national media is concerned with the final teacher misconduct hearings taking place, but the implications continue to reverberate in Birmingham, a city fast heading towards a majority BME population.

A Government-backed report by former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism expert Peter Clarke found evidence of an “aggressive Islamist agenda” at several schools and highlighted “grossly intolerant” email messages between teachers and governors.

Social media messages included “explicit homophobia, highly offensive comments about British service personnel, scepticism about the truth of reports of the murder of Lee Rigby and the Boston bombings, and a constant undercurrent of anti-western, anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment”.

While finding no direct evidence of radicalisation, Clarke’s report did point to “a number of people, associated with each other and in positions of influence in schools and governing bodies, who espouse, endorse or fail to challenge extremist views”.

Clarke found “very clear evidence” that young people were being encouraged to accept “unquestioningly” a particular hardline strand of Sunni Islam and this raised “concerns about their vulnerability to radicalisation in the future”.

Cllr Jones points out that only two of the Trojan Horse schools were overseen by the city council, the others having academy status. She is concerned at the impact the Government’s ‘forced academisation’ plan may have in Birmingham and warns it will be even more difficult to detect any misbehaviour if all city schools become academies free from council oversight.

She believes Trojan Horse raised two key issues. The first, the abuse of power by governors, the council has addressed, she says.

Some people were misusing power and manipulating governing bodies to do things they should not have been doing. In this case they were Muslim but I know of other groups in the city who have done similar things.

The second issue is far more complex – the matter of religion in schools.

All state schools in this country are legally bound to have a daily act of worship mainly Christian in its nature, which is clearly inappropriate in parts of Birmingham where some classrooms are 100 per cent populated by Muslim children. These are not faith schools, but many parents naturally expect their children to be worshipping in the Muslim faith if they are worshipping at all.

Cllr Jones recalls that the Government promised a “national conversation” about religion in schools following Trojan Horse. “That’s all gone rather quiet”, she notes, grimly.

She believes, possibly rightly, that the promised conversation has been abandoned because it would raise issues that are too difficult to deal with in multi-cultural Britain. The question that she opened our conversation with – why are we comfortable with Catholic schools but wary of Muslim schools – would have to be at the forefront of any proper debate and it would take a brave Government to stir up that particular hornets’ nest.

Birmingham city council has been working behind the scenes to address some of the difficult cultural issues exposed by the various Trojan Horse inquiries.

Cllr Jones explains that a resilience team is working with schools “so if they get kids going in saying women are worthless or gays should be hung then the kids are being told how to rebut that”.

A new series of books written and designed in Birmingham is being used to introduce children to the idea that some people are different. It’s all done very gently, almost subliminally, along the lines of explaining that some children might have two mummies for example, or two daddies, “and that’s fine”, says Jones.

She fears that this good work may be undone if the Government presses ahead with plans to turn every school in Birmingham into an academy. The proposal is based on a “big myth” that the council somehow controls schools, according to Jones.

The council doesn’t run schools. Schools in the city are accountable to the council but we don’t run them. The amount of freedom it is claimed the council has to run schools is extraordinarily overrated.

We set the admissions criteria and the RE curriculum and that’s about it. We certainly don’t interfere with the running of schools.

As a socialist Jones is, unsurprisingly, opposed to academies, and points out that so far only one-third of Birmingham schools have opted for academy status and applications to do so are petering out. The academy bubble may have burst just as the Government is forcing the issue, she believes.

The appetite just isn’t there. The people who were dead keen have gone. There isn’t a market of more schools wanting to convert.

Local accountability is completely lost with academies. There is a massive shortage of sponsors and the Government doesn’t have enough even for the schools that want to become academies.

I firmly believe you will achieve more together than you would alone. Fragmentation of schools putting them into competition with each other means that schools won’t achieve for children what they could do if they were working together.

And on the subject of grammar schools, she is dead against them. She responds to my comment that Birmingham has some of the best grammars in the country by replying “they should be because they cream off the top performing children”.

She remains adamantly opposed to selection of any kind, particularly at the age of 11 which she believes is far too young to take a view about academic ability.

I want all Birmingham schools to be good schools and to give the best possible education to all children. That is my aim. That is what I want to see happen.

Tomorrow: Brigid Jones lets fly at the “appalling” Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, and predicts Birmingham children’s social services is close to moving out of special measures.

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