Is there an Islamic conspiracy in Birmingham schools?

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Is ‘creeping Sharia’ taking over Birmingham schools in an underhand conspiracy, or are legitimate concerns by parents that their values are better reflected in Muslim-majority schools being misrepresented by racists?

It’s hard to unpick what’s really going on here, even though Imaginative Minds is based in the city. It has all the hallmarks of a moral panic, emerging out of nowhere, becoming a trigger for media and political overreaction and avoiding any of the deeper underlying causes of the issues. However, like that other great moral panic of our times – child abuse – there is a real problem which is also fruitful territory for vested interests to gain a bit of leverage.

The letter which triggered the conspiracy theory that Wahabi and Salafist Islamicists were trying to take over the governorship and headships of schools in Muslim-dominated parts of the city is itself under investigation by police as a possible hoax or fraud. It has no date, no signature, and several of the key facts are wrong, particularly in relation to heads who were ‘forced-out’. It’s language is also too obviously conspiratorial to ring true.

But in a way, it doesn’t matter whether it was a fraud or not. Once publicised, a deluge of complaints hit the offices of Brigid Jones, the Birmingham council cabinet member for education. The eight Birmingham MPs, who are normally invisible in city politics, got together to demand an investigation by Parliament.

Gove (our education minister, for those of you reading this outside of the UK) in what must be one of the most eccentric and crass decisions ever, appointed a former head of anti-terrorist police as an education commissioner and sent him to Birmingham to investigate the plot. The ‘strongman’ overreaction might say a lot about Gove’s political ambitions but was condemned even by the usually studiously non-political Chief Constable of the West Midlands, who called it a disaster for community relations in the city.

So what are the facts?
The facts, as far as one can ascertain them, are these. A significant number of teachers and some governors and parents have complained of a bias towards appointing male muslim staff, of the separation of boys and girls in ordinary classes and Muslim governors putting pressure on non-Muslim heads in such a way as to make their lives unbearable and forcing resignations.

An investigation was inevitable and necessary after these allegations surfaced, but do they amount to an organised conspiracy? There is no evidence as yet. Whether they amount to a significant trend is the much more important and difficult question to answer, but before one addresses it, one needs to take into account another set of facts.

Park View School in the Alum Rock area of the city, the school at the centre of the allegations, is rated by Ofsted as outstanding . Seventy five per cent of its students get five A*-C grades at GCSE despite a very high level of free school meals – the main indicator of deprivation and usually poor school performance.

David Hughes, one of the Christian school governors, has vigorously defended the school and says it is being unfairly demonised. Writing in the school's spring newsletter, Hughes, who is a practicing Christian, claimed ‘in all my time as a governor we have not received a single complaint about “extremism” or “radicalism”. If we had, we would have investigated it openly and thoroughly.’

It’s also true that the Muslim population has led to a revival in the performance of the city’s inner-city schools because of their commitment to education. Many of them are faring much better now than the white working-class schools in the outlying council estates – what are euphemistically called the ‘White Highlands’. In educational terms, they are really the ‘White Lowlands’. Muslim parents, especially the leaders in their community, are much more involved in education than their white counterparts and see it as critical to the health of their community. If such were the case in other schools in the city, teachers would be gleeful about more committed parental involvement.

Simply cultural confusion?
Is there anything wrong in parents of children in Muslim majority schools campaigning for their cultural values to be reflected in single sex classes, calls to prayers (one of the complaints was about money being misspent on loudspeakers for calling to prayers) or for the staff to be mainly Muslim?

After all, Birmingham has a cultural history of favouring single sex schools, and single sex teaching is now in vogue for some pedagogical reasons – why not for Muslim cultural reasons? Faith schools, particularly Catholic faith schools, strongly favour appointing Catholic staff and admitting Catholic students. And calls to prayer – isn’t this just normal multi-cultural practice?

Is it the case then that the Muslim community doesn’t understand English culture when it comes to the difference between state non-faith schools and state faith schools and have only overstepped the mark because they don’t understand the rules of game?

There is a general problem of some parts of the Muslim community in Birmingham not understanding some aspects of British culture – the rules of democracy are not always a strong point in inner-city wards – but when it comes to education who, frankly, could blame them?

Faith schools are, after all, state-funded schools, but they are given some strange dispensations which are not allowed in ordinary state schools. Gove’s beloved academies and free schools are state-funded but free of state school restrictions, and are often sponsored by religious organisations, or worse, religious individuals.

The whole point of the academy and free school ‘revolution’ is that they are supposedly free of state interference and can adapt and innovate their education practice and better reflect their communities needs. As long, it seems, as it is not innovating and adapting the Muslim way.

The separation of state and church has always been muddled in Britain when it comes to education and Gove has blurred what lines were left in the state school sector. No wonder some of the disappearing lines are being crossed and upsetting teachers trying to hang onto a secularist education ideal. They would fiercely deny being racist, as much as some of the more assertive Muslim parents would deny being Islamic extremists. Secularist education lines are being crossed by everyone now.

So cultural confusion, allied to the systemic confusion of modern English education, is much more likely to be to blame for the controversy in Birmingham’s inner-city schools than any organised conspiracy.

Except that something strange is happening in Small Heath, Saltley and Alum Rock districts where the allegations are centred. More and more women are wearing Arabic dress that has little to do with ethnic cultural traditions, more restaurants are demanding segregation of the sexes and refusing all alcohol, more incidents of radicalisation leading to police intervention are being reported and there are more suggestions of Wahabi money flowing in.

They are becoming very different communities to other Muslim communities in the West Midlands…

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