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Birmingham, 'Britishness' and culture wars

What 'Trojan Horse' tells us about schools, Muslims and the state.
Last modified: 10 Jun 2014 14:13

I know Birmingham fairly well. I went to university there, spent about six years working in local radio and TV. I still remember the Handsworth riots, the vilification of the black working class in places that, once upon a time, were the some of the wealthiest suburbs in the city, but which had become ghettoised as Afro-Caribbean migrants moved in and the white people moved out.  

Generations older than me may still remember the famous quotation that went around in the days of Joseph Chamberlain, who founded the University of Birmingham, that schools set up to cater for Roman Catholics were an outrage. It was ‘Rome on the Rates’, and people were encouraged not to pay taxes to subsidise Catholicism. So Birmingham, a big melting pot city, has had plenty of friction with different cultures.

But there were good bits too. I remember one of the best things about university life was cheap curry. In fact, I even remember doing a story for local TV in the early 1990s when it emerged that the balti curry was the national dish and that Birmingham was the home of the balti. This confected dish, designed for the British palate, was celebrated across the country. For all the tensions inside society, there was at least some acceptance that multiculturalism had its benefits.

But not now. For me, the most striking aspect of the 'Trojan Horse' story and all its ramifications is that it suggests that where Islam is concerned, multiculturalism has utterly failed. The streets in parts of Birmingham near the schools at the centre of the row have changed enormously in the last 20 or 30 years.

There’s evidence everywhere of conservative Islam: modest dress shops, Salafi bookstores. These suburbs are now entirely Muslim, the catchment areas for the schools with barely a single white face. One of the schools, Oldknow Academy, is 99.2 per cent Muslim.

British values

Yet the government now demands that 'Britishness' (whatever that means) must be taught in these schools. Actually, it already is. The library at Oldknow has pictures of the Gruffalo and Harry Potter on the walls. But I’m not sure that’s what the government means. I think they mean that Islam shouldn’t be part of things very much.

The trips to Saudi Arabia (described by the school as voluntary, and by the government as for Muslims only) will presumably stop, as will the Arabic lessons, which a majority of parents asked for (as well as French). Some of the schools, quite reasonably, already said they couldn’t cater for bespoke praying sessions as they didn’t fit in with other lessons. Will all Islamic prayer stop as well, and be replaced by ‘broadly Christian’ teaching, as per the national curriculum?

What happens to the children if they only learn about the Battle of Trafalgar and Richard the Lionheart? What would you imagine their parents’ reactions will be if they are prevented from anything to do with their faith at school?

One parent at Oldknow, who doesn’t wear a veil, said she won’t send her children to what she described as ‘backstreet mosques’ since she found them untrustworthy. Instead, she said she was satisfied with the level of Islam being provided at the school, alongside teaching of other religions. In her mind, that actually constituted a balanced education which helped prevent notional extremist thoughts. She was insistent most of the other parents thought the same.

But if this is no longer provided, isn’t it at least imaginable that more socially conservative parents will take their children to mosques which may not have the same oversight as schools? What happens if, by trying to stop Islamic teaching in school in the way the government is planning, they instead drive it underground?

Trojan hoax?

It’s now widely accepted that the "Trojan Horse" letter was a hoax. But some of the elements inside it, the philosophy it contains, does seem to have some truth: that in strict Muslim parts of Birmingham, some parents want their children to be taught in a way which mirrors their social codes, and that they were putting pressure on head teachers to bend to their will.

The national curriculum doesn’t allow for that, and I think a better debate would now be to consider the relationship between boards of school Governors and head teachers, who have to answer to them, and to investigate what steps head teachers might be given to stand up more to people making unreasonable demands of them. That could have been achieved without the inspectors pressing the destruct button, as seems to have been demanded by ministers.

Notably, the head teachers – those at the condemned schools and those at others deemed fit for purpose by government inspectors – all say that extremism is the wrong word, and the government response is overblown. It’s obvious that many see the government as having an ideology of its own as unbending as that of some of the more outspoken parents they have to deal with.

Really, this isn’t a story about schools: it’s about culture wars being fought out in the playground. That’s really unfair on the kids, who are now under a spotlight of anti-terrorism being run by the Department for Education.