Alleged Islamisation of schools in Britain

School inspectors in the United Kingdom investigated alleged reports of secret Islamisation programmes of several British schools. The final report states that the schools did not condone Islamic fundamentalism, although they failed to sufficiently inform pupils about the dangers of religious extremism.

Throughout spring, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [Ofsted] undertook investigations in 21 state schools in Birmingham attended predominantly by Muslim students. The exceptional inspections were initiated following the discovery of an anonymous letter made public by the British press which contained details of an undercover Islamist plot to take control of schools in the area. The affair highlighted concerns about inadequate supervision of British schools.

The unverified letter which set off the series of inspections claims that there was a “Trojan horse” conspiracy to take over the governing bodies and create a school culture more sympathetic to hardline Muslim religious ethos. In its final report on the case published in early June, Ofsted voiced grave concerns about the administration of the schools under investigation (the report may be accessed here at the UK Department for Education website; the inspections of specific schools is available here).

Ofsted investigated 21 schools in Birmingham, accused of strengthening Islamic principles in the syllabus and radicalising pupils. Photo source: http://www.cypnow.co.uk

The report found evidence of sharp disagreement between head teachers and a school councils (mainly consisting of parents of the students) which demanded ever-greater control over day to day school activities. A “culture of fear and intimidation” was spawned as a result and multiple head teachers were marginalised or dismissed by the governing bodies, which further affected teaching effectiveness of the schools. Some senior staff described how they were bullied out of their offices or intimidated from publicly voicing their disapproval. In some cases, the school councils also affected the school syllabus, for example by trying to enforce single sex teaching (particularly in PE and swimming) and placing emphasis on the study of Islam. According to several head teachers, an organised plot exists to change the character of specific schools in Birmingham through the influence of the school councils on teaching, staff appointments and obstructions of school administration at meetings. As a consequence, some schools did not adequately prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. The environment of the schools damaged the pupils’ emotional well-being and made them vulnerable to segregation from the wider society, especially in cases where Muslim pupils were taught separately from their non-Muslim counterparts or were not taught sex education. The report also condemns the Birmingham city council which failed to react to concerns voiced by the schools’ headmasters.

The British press highlighted some of the more shocking findings, such as school-funded trips to Saudi Arabia, calls for prayer communicated via school loudspeakers, or the absence of evolution in the biology syllabus. However, the report denies allegations that the schools actively promoted Islamic extremism. Its key concerns revolve around the schools’ failure to prepare pupils for life in a multicultural society, their lukewarm approach to religious fundamentalism, and inadequate participation of the schools in the government scheme targeting extremism. These concerns were also mentioned by Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who confirmed that the watchdog saw promotion of culture that, if continued, could cause that the children would be exposed to extremism. Five of the schools under investigation were subsequently placed under closer scrutiny.

Inspector Michael Wilshaw accused schools in Birmingham of failing to take a more hardline stance against extremism. Photo source: http://www.smuc.ac.uk

Led by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, the British government called for British values to be actively promoted in all schools across England, beginning in the next academic year. Prime Minister David Cameron commended his government’s swift response and voiced his support for Ofsted’s mission to protect pupils. The schools in the spotlight rejected the Ofsted report as a witch hunt motivated by Islamophobia. The Muslim Council of Britain, which runs more than 500 national and regional associations and schools across the country, called Ofsted’s conclusions into question and argued that there was no evidence of a correlation between radicalisation into violent extremism and education. Several education experts, led by Tim Brighouse, also condemned the Ofsted inquiry and pointed to abrupt shifts in Ofsted’s inspection results, as a result of which some of the schools under investigation dropped from good or outstanding in late 2013 to inadequate in this year’s report.

Peter Clarke, the former Metropolitan police counter-terrorism commander, led a simultaneous government investigation of the alleged Islamist infiltration plot. The appointment of a counter-terrorism expert to chair the investigation sparked fears that this will needlessly stigmatise British Muslims. Clarke’s final report found evidence of “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools in the city”, although it stopped short of confirming the allegations that the schools supported terrorist activities. Another investigation, led by the Birmingham city council, concurred in denying the existence of a conspiracy to promote radicalism or violent extremism.

Lucie Chládková