“The Trojan horse Affair”: The call for an independent inquiry

The Trojan Horse scandal centred on an anonymous letter that was leaked to Birmingham’s City Council (United Kingdom) in 20131. It alleged that teachers and governors in certain schools, within predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham, were being “systematically overthrown and replaced by people who would run the schools according conservative Islamic principles”2. The photocopy of the letter was accompanied by a note from an anonymous source, claiming they discovered it in their boss’s office3. It was then leaked to the UK media in early 2014 and led to a “frenzy”4 amongst the general public and political circles. As discussed further in this report, the allegations made led to investigations into schools in Birmingham that were listed in the report, the dismissal of school staff from the teaching profession, and changes to the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, particularly the Prevent strand (see euro-Islam for “The People’s Review of Prevent: Key Findings”)5

In February 2022, a podcast series titled “The Trojan Horse Affair” was launched by Serial Productions and the New York Times. Hosted by Hamza Syed (UK journalist), and Brian Reed (US journalist) the eight episode series investigates who wrote the letter that sparked the controversy and their intentions behind it6. Whilst the podcast has been critiqued by British journalists such as Sonia Sodha (The Guardian) for its potential to “reopen old wounds”7, Zara Mohammed, the Secretary General for the Muslim Council of Britain has said that podcast investigation “reveals the deep-rooted nature of institutional Islamophobia in the UK. Each episode is a damning indictment of how narratives and tropes were perpetuated to feed a story of moral panic, in which Muslims are centre stage”8

Background to the Trojan Horse Affair

The letter, sent to Birmingham City Council, called “Operation Trojan Horse”, outlined a five-step strategy to identify and capture Muslim-majority schools in Birmingham, target staff, governing bodies, and parents, in order to introduce an “ultra-conservative Islamic agenda”9. The letter stated that this strategy is “tried and tested within Birmingham”10, and named 21 schools where it was supposedly being carried out. Following the receipt of the letter, Birmingham City Council carried out internal inquiries and concluded in March 2014 that “we have not been able to form any conclusion about whether there is any substance to the claims surrounding Operation Trojan Horse made in the document”11

In December 2013 the letter was passed to the UK Home Office and Department of Education. Despite the letter itself quickly being discredited as a hoax, the UK media was quick to report that there was a “Trojan horse Jihadist plot to take over Birmingham schools”12 and an emergency investigation was launched in 2014 into twenty one schools in Birmingham by Ofsted (the  Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills). Of the twenty one schools investigated, five were judged to be inadequate by Ofsted and were placed into “special measures” (a status applied by Ofsted to schools considered to have failed to provide acceptable standards of teaching, have poor learning facilities, and lack clear leadership capacity amongst the schools management to ensure improvements13) .

The five schools identified by Ofsted as inadequate (as shown in figure one below) were schools were located within four miles of each other, in the East Birmingham neighbourhoods of Washwood Heath, Small Heath, Sparkhill and Alum Rock. These neighbourhoods are some of the most deprived areas in the UK and 80% of the residents are Muslim14

Figure 1: Map of 5 Birmingham Schools Deemed Inadequate by Ofsted (Source: The Guardian15).

These five schools were placed into special measures on the basis of their apparent failures to teach students diverse belief systems other than Islam, segregating classes by gender, and providing inadequate sex education15. For example, an inspector for Park View School wrote:

“there are few opportunities for students to learn about different types of beliefs and cultures in the older year groups. Students are not taught citizenship well enough or prepared properly for life in a diverse and multi-cultural society”16

Similar statements were made in regards to the other four schools. At Oldknow academy, statements specifically focused on events within the school, such as the introduction of faith assemblies. One inspector wrote:

“The academy has two Islamic faith assemblies each week and additional, optional Friday prayer. Birmingham City Mission has been delivering Christian Acts of Collective Worship at Oldknow, once a term, since 2006. Its recent assembly was cancelled and the Mission’s offer of an alternative date was not taken up. No further visits have been requested. The academy’s Christmas special assembly was also cancelled.”17

However, Kasim Ali, an ex-pupil at one of the primary schools, Park View, has responded to some of these claims and has shared his own experience at the school. He has said that it was appreciated for example, lunch hours were shortened during Ramadan, because they were a school filled with Muslim pupils, and he values how this was taken into consideration18. Whilst he recalls that it was only his PE (physical education) lessons that were segregated by gender, this also occurred at most other primary schools in the area.

Michael Gove, the then UK minister for education, also appointed the former counter-terrorism chief Peter Clarke to look further into the allegations. At the time, Chris Sims, the former chief constable of West Midlands police criticized the appointment because it appeared as though the investigation was being officially handled as a counter-terrorism issue19. Sims stated that he was a “strong supporter of open and inclusive education for all children in Birmingham and the West Midlands” and was “committed to the process adopted by Birmingham City Council with educational and social inclusion at its heart”20. In his view, the investigation being headed by Peter Clarke, would instead damage community relations21. Similarly, the former leader of Birmingham City Council Sir Albert Bore considered that the appointment, given Clarke’s background in counter-terrorism, could “undermine the confidence of our communities” in Birmingham22

Impact of the Podcast and Reactions

Although the investigation conducted by Clarke found no evidence of any plot or terrorist activity, it resulted in the extension of the UK Government’s Prevent program (as part of their counter-terrorism strategy) into schools. As highlighted by the recent “People’s Review of Prevent”, the program is ineffective, disproportionate, and discriminatory towards Muslims (see the euro-islam on “The People’s Review of Prevent: Key Findings”)23. The report also describes how one of the consequences of the Trojan Horse Affair, has been that PREVENT is “overwhelmingly directed at children and young people” where there is a tendency to treat cases involving children as a top concern for national security24.

The primary focus of the podcast was to investigate whether there really was a plot to take over Birmingham schools, who wrote the letter, and how the letter was dealt with. It discusses whether the issues uncovered during the investigations (such as gender segregation, lack of sex education, and lack of diversity in the teaching of belief systems) – justified the scale and nature of the political response, even if the journalists argue, such issues should be addressed.

The first two episodes focus primarily on the timeline of events following the letter and features an interview with Tahir Alam, the former chairman of Park View Education Trust and the alleged mastermind of the Trojan horse scandal. In episode two “The Case of the Four Resignations”, Syed and Reed, in their conversation with Tahir Alam uncover that the suspected person, or people, involved in writing the letter were from Birmingham and were known to Tahir. Tahir refuses to name those involved but tells Syed and Reed that if they need to read the letter from a literary point of view and whilst doing so, keep in mind who the letter defends25.

The remainder of the episode focuses on Syed and Reed’s investigation around the letter, which leads them to the plausible theory that it came from within Adderley Primary School due to details in the letter which were not public at the time. More specifically, Syed and Reed describe how the five-step plan to remove headteachers and take over schools – that was detailed in the letter – mirrored the events within an employment dispute between the Adderley Headteacher and four teaching assistants that began in 2012. According to the letter, the five steps of the plan were as follows: to identify vulnerable schools; select a group of Salafi parents to push for an Islamic agenda; put in place governors, who adhere to the same conservative Islamic beliefs; identify key staff to disrupt the school from within; and instigate an anonymous letter and PR campaign to put pressure on the school. and force the headteacher to resign26.

When this employment dispute went to court, more than a year after the Trojan Horse letter was made public, the judge stated that “undoubtedly whoever wrote the letter had intimate knowledge of the allegations at the heart of this case”27.

The podcast also explores the stories and impacts the allegations had on Muslims in Birmingham, who feel their community has been tarnished by the scandal. In one particular episode the journalists interview a former pupil of a Trojan Horse School. The student explains the fear they have of disclosing the school they attended because of the detrimental impact it may have on their future education or career prospects due to being perceived as being extremist, or being sympathetic to extremist views28

The podcast exploration has been contested by Michael Gove – who was the UK Minister for Education at the time of the Trojan Horse Scandal – and in the British media more broadly. For example, the Guardian described the podcast as “a one-sided account that minimises child protection concerns, and homophobia”29. By contrast, the Muslim Council of Britain considers that the podcast highlights the negative impact of this letter on Muslim communities by fueling the false tropes about Islam, re-inforcing aggressive counter-terror strategies and denying a whole generation access to quality education”30. At the time of the investigations, the Muslim Council of Britain warned education authorities “not to be sidetracked by culture wars initiated by divisive commentators”31 and rejected many of the findings of the government-commissioned report. 

In commending the journalist and New York Times for the podcast findings, the Muslim Council of Britain also emphasises the “indictment on British policymaking and the media echo chamber they rely on”32. The Council has now called for an independent public inquiry into the Trojan horse case “and a public apology from those who ignored the truths presented to them”33

The full podcast episodes can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/podcasts/trojan-horse-affair.html

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