The 'Trojan Horse' plot? A figment of neo-Conservative imagination

#Islamophobia

It's time for another 'Trojan Horse' plot investigation - this time into how Islamophobic ideologues dreamed it up and sold it to media henchmen

Peter Oborne's picture
Friday 2 June 2017 12:56 UTC
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Three years have passed since Michael Gove, then education secretary, announced the discovery of evidence of an apparent Muslim plot to take over a number of Birmingham schools.

The media went bonkers. Television viewers and newspaper readers learned of a sinister group of fanatics hell-bent on imposing ‘Islamism’ on Birmingham schools.

David Cameron immediately called an emergency meeting of his exciting new "extremism taskforce".

Gove called in Peter Clarke, the former head of Counter Terrorism Command, to mount an investigation.

Several teachers were sacked and their careers destroyed. The episode has gone down in history as a case study in why Muslims must not be allowed near the British education system.

Three years on and I believe the time has come when there should be a second investigation into the "Trojan Horse" affair.

Investigate the instigators

A mountain of evidence now suggests that this alleged Islamist plot may have been little more than a lurid figment of the neo-Conservative imagination.

It looks likely that the Trojan Horse affair was an anti-Muslim ideological concoction, driven by Michael Gove, backed by David Cameron’s Downing Street, and aided and abetted by a group of well-placed media henchmen.

It is also an episode which has done enormous harm to community relations, unfairly wrecked the career of teachers and, above all, set back the life chances of thousands of mainly Muslim Birmingham students, whose school careers have been gravely disrupted.

The first serious public indication that the Trojan Horse affair was not all that it seemed came with the dawning realisation that the original letter - sent to Birmingham Council, which seemed to prove the existence of a plot - may well have been a fake.

The letter, purportedly between two Salafist plotters, outlined a five-step method by which any state school could be taken over. It was taken very seriously by the authorities despite growing doubts about its authenticity.

Then came publication of a report by parliament’s all-party education select committee. According to chairman Graham Stuart: "One incident apart, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found by any of the inquiries in any of the schools involved. Neither was there any evidence of a sustained plot, nor of significant problems in other parts of the country."

Case collapse

This week, another development adds substance to the education committee assertion that the Trojan Horse plot was in large part a figment of the imagination.

The case against the five senior teachers accused of professional misconduct in the so-called Trojan Horse affair has collapsed.

All these teachers have had their careers blighted since the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) set up disciplinary hearings two years ago.

It now emerges that government lawyers were involved in an "abuse of justice" and the proceedings have been dropped (with a minute fraction of the media fanfare with which the original allegations were launched).

By coincidence, the case against the five schoolteachers fell apart in the week of the publication of a massively important new book by James Fergusson.

Fergusson is a well-respected British foreign correspondent, accustomed to reporting from countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia. In his latest book, Al-Britannia, My Country, he has turned his attention to Britain.

Fergusson has come to the subject of British Islam with few preconceptions. As a result, a new and very troubling account of the Trojan Horse affair emerges. 

'Outstanding' to 'inadequate' in days

Fergusson carried out a long interview with Tahir Alam, who worked for the Park View Trust, which ran three of the schools caught up in the controversy.

Alam, the biggest and most high-profile victim of the Trojan Horse affair, is the first teacher ever formally banned by the Department for Education.

He has been forbidden to run, manage or work in any British schools on the grounds that he has "undermined British values". 

Anybody who wants to have a balanced understanding of the Trojan Horse affair needs to read Fergusson's interview with Alam.  

Fergusson reminds us that Alam was a highly distinguished teacher. Park View School was an educational calamity before Alam took it over. At one point in the 1990s, only 4 percent of GCSE results were grade C or higher.

Under the leadership of Alam, this figure rose to 76 percent. Ironically, this was achieved by old-fashioned methods, which the conservative educational establishment would normally cheer from the rooftops.

Fergusson records that "Alam introduced ties and blazers and strictly enforced the wearing of them. There was a zero tolerance policy on swearing and on poor timekeeping."

As a result, Park View School received a brilliant write-up from the Ofsted inspection regime. In 2012, the school was rated as 'outstanding' in a report which used the word 'exemplary' 13 times.

Fergusson's book records that the school was held up as an example by the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who told a conference of the National Union of Teachers “every school in the country should be like this”. 

Fergusson's book shows that Ofsted's attitude to Park View changed in a matter of days after the Trojan Horse allegations surfaced.

Suddenly, the school was labelled “inadequate”, and put into “special measures”. 

Alam told Fergusson that it was "clear” that Ofsted “were operating under political instruction".

Today in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair, the Park View schools are all but unrecognisable. Park View has been renamed the Rockwood Academy. Results have suffered.

James Fergusson quotes Alam: "All the teachers are supply. The A-C GCSE results are falling from 76 percent in 2013 to 65 percent in 2014, to 54 percent last year.”

'Jackanory tittle-tattle' 

The Fergusson book also raises questions about the role of Peter Clarke, the former policeman brought in to report on the schools. According to Fergusson: “Alam argued that not just he but all the Trojan Horse teachers had been unfairly treated, particularly by Peter Clarke who, he claimed, had not entered a single one of the schools targeted in his report, nor spoken to any of their pupils or parents in the course of his inquiry. (A parent governor caught up in the affair later told me that Clarke never left Birmingham Council's committee room nine.) Much of Clarke's report, Alam said, was based on 'Jackanory tittle-tattle' that had been extrapolated to fit a preconceived narrative."

These powerful allegations from Alam carry even more weight in the light of the collapse of the case against the five Birmingham school teachers.

In due course, I will be reviewing Fergusson's book, which examines some of the most damaging claims made against British Muslims over alleged extremism, Sharia law and lack of patriotism.

However, his chapter on the Trojan Horse affair raises very serious questions indeed. I urge everyone to read it carefully.

If Fergusson is right, then the senior teachers at the Birmingham​ schools have been subject to a terrible injustice.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove and his allies stand accused of launching an ideological crusade even at the cost of inflicting grave damage on children's education.

We journalists also bear a heavy responsibility. It looks as if the media gravely magnified the claims made against the Birmingham schools without trying to present a balanced account of the story. 

I know Michael Gove a little. He is a decent man, an ornament to British politics, and dedicated to the truth. I have no doubt that he would welcome a fresh examination of the Trojan Horse so that the real lessons of this wretched business can be learned. 

- Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year in 2016 and again in 2017 by the Online Media Awards for an articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: British conservative politician Michael Gove delivers a speech on Brexit in central London on 13 May 2017 The Convention is a two-day event that brings together speakers from different backgrounds to discuss the implications of Brexit. (AFP)