Are English schools being taken over by Islamic extremists?

The government has put several Birmingham schools on probation amid accusations that Islamic conservatives were trying to take them over. But the reality is more nuanced.

Joe Giddens/Press Association/AP/File
British government inspectors say there is a 'culture of fear and intimidation' at several British schools investigated in Birmingham, England, over allegations of a plot to run them along strict Islamic lines. Park View Educational Trust, which runs several of the schools, insisted its schools 'do not tolerate or promote extremism.'

As pupils bounce into Oldknow Academy, neatly turned out in smart blazers and ties and greeting the teacher at the gate with impeccable politeness, it is possible to see why this primary school might be considered one of the best in Birmingham.

Last week, however, Oldknow became one of five schools to be blacklisted by government inspectors, amid accusations that Islamic extremists were trying to take over leadership of schools in the city. 

Though the accusations came in the form of an anonymous letter sent last November to the city council – a letter now considered to be fake – it has raised some uncomfortable truths in Birmingham, which has a large Muslim population.

And it has highlighted the challenges facing Britain's secular education system as it tries to accommodate the cultural desires and needs of a growing Muslim community while standing vigilant against dangerous extremism.

The report

The anonymous letter led to snap inspections in 21 government-funded schools in Birmingham. Inspectors for Britain's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) found that in some schools, parents and governors wanted their children to be taught in line with conservative Islam, and were pressuring teachers and principals to comply.

The report was particularly damning of Oldknow, where 99.2 percent of pupils are Muslim. Inspectors said that Islamic studies had been added to the "personal, health and social education curriculum," while the school had funded a student trip to Saudi Arabia. 

Governors promoted “a particular and narrow faith-based ideology" and had cancelled a regular Christian prayer and a Christmas assembly. During a recent school fête, raffles and tombolas were banned because they were unIslamic, the report said. 

“Some of our findings are deeply worrying and in some ways quite shocking,” Michael Wilshaw, head of the Ofsted schools inspectorate, told a press conference. “In the most serious cases, a culture of fear and intimidation has taken grip.”

The school was downgraded from “outstanding” – the top grading – to “inadequate” – the lowest. Oldknow and four other schools in the city were put into “special measures,” which means regular inspections and potentially closure if there's no improvement. The education secretary, Michael Gove, said last week that Ofsted could inspect schools without warning, instead of the usual few days' notice.

Bullying governors

At Oldknow, the acting principal did not return calls seeking comment. His predecessor, Bhupinder Kondal, who is not Muslim, was reportedly hounded out of her job last year.

Outside the gate, most parents dropping off pupils appear to speak little English. Among those that do, mostly fathers, many say they were happy with their children's education. But others complain about the conservative Islamic agenda of school governors. 

“I am a Muslim and I am concerned,” says a bank cashier who didn't want to give his name for fear of “bad feeling around here.”

“It's not the teachers that are the problem; it's the governors. They have got too involved in the teaching. It's not extremism as such, but they shouldn't ignore other religions."

His worries are echoed by Syed Ali, a shopkeeper with three pupils at the school. “I'm happy with the school but I do think it should appoint governors who have an idea of the national curriculum,” he says.

However, Mohammed Janghir, who describes himself as a moderate Muslim, says the school promotes religious tolerance, citing as evidence his daughter's recent visit to a synagogue, and the occasional rendition of the Lord's Prayer.

“But when a school is totally Muslim, you need to cater to the needs of Muslims,” he says, adding that when he attended Oldknow himself as a child, the class was overwhelmingly white. 

Historic changes

In Smallheath, the neighborhood of redbrick Victorian row houses in which Oldknow is situated, most of the women walking in the streets are veiled; many also have their faces covered. The neighborhood is dotted with Salafi bookshops, madrassas, and shops selling modest clothing.

At Holy Family Primary, a Roman Catholic primary school on the same street as Oldknow, most of the children are Muslim. In the Catholic church around the corner, 67-year-old Eddie Mahoney, who has lived in Smallheath since he was 10 years old, says that in an area that was once largely Irish, he is one of the last left.

“We don't have a problem with it – it's just that everything has changed so fast, the color and the culture, that you don't really know where you are,” he says.

This sense of multiculturalism-induced confusion seems to have also to have affected Ofsted. Education Secretary Gove said all schools in England must actively “promote” British values.

“These pious conservative Muslims share many values with those on the Conservative right, in terms of discipline and morality,” says Tariq Madood, a sociologist at Bristol University. “But somehow the Conservative right has taken them to be a threat.”

Ofsted's apparent conflation of Islamic conservatism and extremism has been widely criticized. The Muslim Council of Britain, with which more than 500 organizations from mosques to schools are affiliated, said, “extremism will not be confronted if Muslims and their religious practices are considered as, at best, contrary to the values of this country and at worst, seen as 'the swamp' that feeds extremism.”

A nuanced interpretation

As news of the school downgrades broke, a group of Birmingham principals from other schools called a press conference to give a more nuanced interpretation of what had gone wrong.

They had, they said, experienced pressure from some Muslim parents and governors to adopt a more conservative approach – from introducing segregated changing areas for physical education to the end of mixed-gender swimming. But they said that these pressures did not constitute extremism.

“I don’t think extremism is wanting a good Islamic education within the maintained sector,” said Christine Mitchell, head of Clifton Primary School.

Teachers, for their part, say that what is really needed – above and beyond any discussion of multiculturalism, extremism, or conservatism – is for Ofsted to support educators who feel pressured by governors or parents.

“We fully understand that parents want their children to be brought up as good Muslims," she said. "But we can’t accommodate that [in state-run primary schools].”

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