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Operation Trojan Horse sparks controversy in the UK

Fears of Islamic radicalism in UK schools prompt calls for spot checks and a meeting of the 'extremism task force'.
The UK education secretary Michael Gove arrives at 10 Downing Street in London on Monday after being called to attend a meeting with prime minister David Cameron to discuss the alleged "extremist takeovers" of schools in Birmingham. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)
The UK education secretary Michael Gove arrives at 10 Downing Street in London on Monday after being called to attend a meeting with prime minister David Cameron to discuss the alleged "extremist takeovers" of schools in Birmingham. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

LONDON // The British government reacted sharply on Monday to claims of “hardline” Islamist infiltration of a city’s schools, calling for spot checks by inspectors and summoning ministers to a meeting of its “extremism task force”.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of the national inspection agency Ofsted, said when delivering a series of reports on 21 individual schools in Birmingham that “a culture of fear and intimidation” had taken hold in the worst cases.

Head teachers had been marginalised or forced out of their jobs, he said, referring to evidence of an organised campaign to target certain schools and change their ethos.

“Some of our findings are deeply worrying and, in some ways, quite shocking,” Sir Michael added.

The prime minister David Cameron said he wanted to stop schools taking advantage of notice periods for inspections to cover up radical activities “which have no place in our society”.

Mr Cameron’s cabinet is in deep disarray amid controversy over the so-called “Trojan Horse” operation, named after the Greek myth in which soldiers hid inside a wooden horse to breach defences and enter the besieged city of Troy.

Ministries have criticised each other, one cabinet minister was instructed to apologise to another and a senior aide was forced to resign for her part in the “briefing war”.

In another of the series of reports commissioned by the government, Britain’s Education Funding Agency (EFA) said one Birmingham academy, the Park View trust, which runs three of the schools judged “inadequate”, had “taken the Islamic focus too far”.

The report spoke of a “madrassa curriculum” in personal, social and health and economic lessons at Park View. Posters “written in Quranic Arabic’ were seen in most of the classrooms visited, it said, and loudspeakers were used to broadcast calls to prayer.

But the school-by-school investigation by Ofsted was even harsher. It said six should be taken under “special measures”, with 12 more ordered to make significant improvements. Three were exonerated and praised for their achievements.

Senior staff and teachers at a school under “special measures” can be dismissed and the governors replaced by an external committee. The school may be ordered to close if performance continues to be poor, as has happened with a Muslim faith school in another English city, Derby.

Some of the schools have been swift to respond.

The assistant principal of Park View, Lee Donaghy, who has described himself as agnostic, said his was a normal state school like thousands of others across Britain except that “98 per cent of our pupils just happen to be Muslims, British Muslims”.

“Every day, my colleagues and I work hard to ensure our pupils are disciplined, understand and respect difference and most of all achieve well, and in the process gain a full understanding of their religion - the surest guards against extremism of any kind,” he said.

Mohammed Ahsraf, a governor at another affected school, Golden Hillock, told the BBC the Ofsted inspectors had an agenda that made it inevitable the school would be judged to have failed.

The row has been rumbling for three months since an anonymous letter sent to Birmingham city council alleged a concerted drive to make schools adopt a more Islamic culture with governors and teaching staff chosen to promote a conservative religious agenda. There have also been claims that boys and girls were segregated, non-Muslim staff harassed and children given a positive image of Al Qaeda.

Mr Cameron said in a statement: “Protecting our children is one of the first duties of government and that is why the issue of alleged Islamist extremism in Birmingham schools demands a robust response.”

His call for snap inspections is intended to answer claims that some schools hastily arranged lessons to include Christian teaching and “shows of cultural inclusivity” after being given notice of inspectors’ visits.

In the cases of five of the schools now criticised, inspections in 2012 and 2013, found them to be “good” or “outstanding”. But on those occasions, the schools had up to two days’ notice of visits.

The investigations have been carried out against a background of intense political and media pressure. The Times newspaper said teachers and pupils at one school had referred to Christians as “kaffirs”, a derogatory term for unbelievers.

On the other hand, the left-of-centre Observer newspaper reported from Birmingham on non-Muslim staff at Park View school bitterly rejecting the accusations.

Helena Roswell, head of music, told the paper: “As a white, non-Muslim, female teacher in charge of music at Park View school for a number of years, I have no hesitation in wholeheartedly opposing the claim that there is any kind of movement in place to either segregate or radicalise our students.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: June 9, 2014 04:00 AM

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