Birmingham school ‘conspiracy’ theory fizzled out but the damage has been done!

Do we loudly hear from the right-wing press, which recycled ‘Islamist conspiracy to takeover state schools’ in Birmingham, that the government has now dropped proceedings to ban fourteen out of fifteen remaining teachers implicated with the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair?

Obviously not!

In March 2014 an anonymous and unverified letter sent to Birmingham City Council (now regarded as a forgery or a hoax) claimed that there was a “Trojan Horse” conspiracy to take over governing bodies and create a school culture more sympathetic to hard-line Muslim religious ethos.

It is unbelievable that on the basis of such thin and unsubstantiated evidence of ‘Muslim take-over’ of some schools, the whole government machinery came into somewhat panicky action and Birmingham finished up like Brent of the past.

Soon after the Muslim-specific “Trojan Horse conspiracy”, some 21 schools in Birmingham were inspected by education watchdog Ofsted and the government’s Extremism Task Force was involved: no educationally valid evidence to substantiate the Trojan Horse theory emerged.

Despite initial claims that as many as 100 teachers or teaching assistants could be barred for allegedly attempting to apply undue religious influence, only 15 faced disciplinary charges in the hearings that began in 2015.

In May the DfE’s case against five former headteachers and senior teachers at the Park View group, collapsed. The DfE’s National Council of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) panel hearing the case accused the government’s lawyers of abuse of justice.

The Guardian newspaper now reports the letters from the DfE’s National Council of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) are sent to the lawyers for the teachers involved,  informing that proceedings against the remaining teachers have been discontinued.

But the serious damage has been done. What has been happening to Birmingham despite its many Asian/Muslim MPs and councillors, has resulted in a series of initiatives that have serious implications for Muslims widely.

Because of the public argument between the then education secretary Michael Gove and home secretary Theresa May as to who is not doing enough to combat the perceived ‘Islamist extremism’ in schools (Trojan Horse kicked in), Theresa May enforced the Prevent Duty on schools.

From 1 July 2015 all schools, registered early years childcare providers and registered later years childcare providers are subject to a duty under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, in the exercise of their functions, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” – i.e. schools and the providers report to the authorities if they suspect any signs of ‘radicalism/extremism’ in children or parents – general view is that ‘extremism’, ‘radicalism’, ‘terrorism’ etc have a Muslim specific sense.

The government’s highly controversial Prevent policy lacks public and professional confidence, especially in education where its implementation hugely varies, including panic, over enthusiasm, reinforced stereotyping of parents/pupils and implicit/explicit manifestations of Islamophobia.

What is also very concerning is the lack of transparency in implementing the Prevent duty which makes it almost impossible to monitor the quality of the Prevent duty practices, its effectiveness or the level of harassment which families or children might suffer due to inappropriate practice of the Prevent duty (and this happens – for example, on poor advise from the council, a school acts improperly, and when challenged, both the school and council had to apologise to the parents!!).

Most councils receive the Prevent duty referral via the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) but they refuse Freedom of Information requests such as:

How many cases (under the Prevent duty) were referred/ reported from the schools? How many of the referred cases were initially assessed?  How many of these cases were escalated to the next stage? How many were accepted for further investigation and were investigated? What were the outcomes of the cases referred to the council?

They refuse the information on the iffy basis that, “disclosing the number of referrals would have an adverse impact on local community relations and would result in increased community tensions”, knowing very well that the information sought is about the overall figures and not about individuals, a particular school, a particular location of the school, a particular family/ child or a particular council officer.

Therefore, it is understandable why the Prevent duty has lost credibility: for example, Nation Union of Teachers has expressed serious concerns about the Prevent duty (read what Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said at the NUT Conference 2017). Others in the profession have made clear to ‘stop education professionals being the secret service of the public sector’.

Another example to target Muslims in Britain presumably because of the Birmingham context, is the government backed Casey Review.  While the review highlights a variety of Muslim-specific socio-cultural negativities, it lacks adequate focus on why things are as they are – for example, Islamophobia due to far right groups, press and politicians or barriers to integration which many say are the dominant norms.

The government is very keen on criminalising ‘non-violent’ extremism.

The government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy presented to Parliament in a command paper (Cm9148) in October 2015, identified following area of harm caused by extremism promoting hatred and division (mentioned in High Court case Dr Salman Butt V Secretary Of State For The Home Department: July 2017).

“Many hate crimes are motivated by extremist ideologies, often propagated by individuals who make a careful effort to stay just within existing legal parameters, exploiting the very freedoms they claim to despise in order to undermine our society.”

 “A vulnerable person would be introduced to an extremist ideology by a radicalising influence (typically an extremist individual) who in the absence of protective factors, such as a supportive network of family and friends, or a fulfilling job, draws the vulnerable individual ever closer to extremism” Chapter 3 of the paper.

Why these descriptors can’t be applied to the far right groups, press and politicians who distinctly surfaced during the last London mayor election and EU referendum, and have some bearing on the alarming increase in the hate crimes, including Islamophobia?

In the absence of no obvious measures to tackle the upsurge of far right anti-Muslim extremism which threatens Muslim lives and properties, the Casey review expects schools to deliver ‘integration’ and prevent extremism!

Hope the Muslim community would use the democratic rights/process to challenge the rise of Islamophobia and stigmatising the Muslim community, including by the government policies, practices and inaction.

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