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Trojan Horse, Kerslake, Commissioners, austerity – ‘I relish a challenge’, says Mark Rogers one year on

Trojan Horse, Kerslake, Commissioners, austerity – ‘I relish a challenge’, says Mark Rogers one year on

🕔24.Mar 2015

It’s been a year since Mark Rogers left the relatively tranquil waters of Solihull for a hot seat in the Birmingham bear pit. To say that the past 12 months have been a baptism of fire for the city council chief executive is putting it mildly, writes Paul Dale.

He’s had to cope with the imposition of two Government-appointed commissioners – Lord Warner, who is attempting to sort out the city’s serially failing children’s social services, and Sir Mike Tomlinson who is overseeing schools – while also battling with the council’s austerity-affected finances that are deteriorating to such an extent that Rogers doubts whether there will be enough money left by 2020 to run even statutory services.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Mr Rogers’ first year in charge was dominated by the Trojan Horse affair and subsequent appointment of Sir Bob, now Lord, Kerslake to review the council’s governance capabilities, or as it turned out incapabilities.

Kerslake’s report slammed poor leadership, absence of a vision for the future that could be understood by anyone and a propensity by the council over many years to kick difficult decisions into the long grass.  As a result, the Government required an improvement panel to be set up to guide the council along the path to reform.

Behind the obvious headlines Kerslake also, crucially, pointed to a failing HR policy that led to a dash for voluntary redundancy, denuding the council of talented senior management, leaving Mr Rogers hopelessly exposed and fighting battles on all fronts without the expert support the chief executive of a £3 billion council is surely entitled to expect. Interim strategic directors are being brought in to sort out the mess, at huge cost.

An obvious first question in a wide ranging interview to mark the occasion with the Chamberlain Files: “Have you enjoyed your first year?” was met with a perhaps predictable answer:

I relish a challenge.

In a Donald Rumsfeld-type response, Mr Rogers admits there were rather more ‘unknown knowns’ to the job than he had anticipated, although he says even at the height of Trojan Horse “when I hardly had time to straighten my tie before dashing down the Council House steps to speak to the television cameras” there were never any doubts in his mind about the job. Candidly, he admits:

I do have moments where I feel like saying ‘up yours’ because we can’t fulfil expectations. And we do need to think of better ways of people helping themselves than we presently have.

Who could have predicted that Trojan Horse would have bolted out of the gate a week after I arrived? But the truth is I have enjoyed myself. There is a strange pleasure in trying to manage a whole lot of different issues simultaneously and it’s been an exciting challenge.

It is worth spending some time examining Mr Rogers’ take on Trojan Horse, not least because in an interview with Chamberlain Files weeks after taking office he appeared to dismiss the takeover of schools by radical Muslim governors and teachers as nothing more than reflecting “legitimate questions” being raised by new communities about the type of schooling they wanted for their children and how that could fit in with the liberal education system in this country.

Three Trojan Horse inquiries later, including one led by former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism commander Peter Clarke, does Mr Rogers agree that his comments were perhaps a little naïve?

I accept that I probably didn’t know as much about this issue as I should have done at the time of the interview,

he says guardedly.

However, his central view of Trojan Horse remains the same – that matters were blown up by the media and some politicians with a deliberate blurring of lines to claim that classrooms were becoming breeding grounds for radicalisation when, he is sure, there is no evidence to suggest that is the case.

Asked whether, if the social conservatism forced on to schools had been from white, right-wing evangelical Christians, the response would have been the same, Mr Rogers says:

We have asked ourselves that question. We suspect the reaction would have been different.

He describes Trojan Horse as…

a very big storm in a very small tea cup that will have long lasting implications

Some people misused their positions of responsibility to promote beyond a level of acceptability agendas to do with their culture and faith. They went too far in skewing the curriculum and practices in a small number of schools particularly since they were not denominational schools.

Socially religious conservatives pushed this beyond what was acceptable. A small number of schools were misgoverned. People did things that they should not have done.

He hints that political decisions were made nationally to “conflate” public fears over extremism with the activities of a few governors and teachers in a small number of schools, although he does not dwell on just who in national politics might have been responsible for such a course of action.

Mr Rogers adds:

This surfaced in Birmingham and nationally within the context of genuine and serious concerns about radicalisation and extremism. I can accept that these two things sat alongside each other. The bit that I still think is regrettable is the way that these two things happening at the same time were conflated.

Radicalisation and extremism were seen as substitute words for religious conservatism. This led to a narrative that Islamisation was happening in Birmingham rather than hugely inappropriate social conservatism.

The assumption that social conservatism leads to radicalisation “has been very unhelpful and has positioned Muslim communities as being talked about in the same vein as extremism” Mr Rogers adds.

Whether the tools were in place at Birmingham’s Trojan Horse schools to allow radicalisation to fester probably depends on your interpretation of radicalisation. Mr Rogers’ insistence that the schools were solely blighted by social conservatism does not sit very well with the Peter Clarke report which revealed highly inappropriate social media discussions between governors and teachers at the schools.

Clarke noted:

The all-male group discussions include explicit homophobia; highly offensive comments about British service personnel; a stated ambition to increase segregation in the school; disparagement of strands of Islam; 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.

With evidence like that it is perhaps unsurprising that the national media latched on to what was happening in Birmingham and that, inevitably, claims of extremism were levelled. It is water under the bridge now, but if the council had acted far earlier when allegations about shocking behaviour at certain schools were made, the Trojan Horse affair might have been avoided.

As Mr Rogers says:

There were officers and members who between them had all the pieces of the jigsaw but weren’t able to see the bigger picture.

*Part two of the Rogers’ anniversary interview will be published soon, including the Kerslake Review and the improvement panel, why we have to change and the end of local government as we know it.

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