Dark clouds emerge over Birmingham schools: The damning evidence

12 Jun 2014

"A culture of fear and intimidation has taken grip."

That was what Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw had to say about a number of Birmingham schools following an investigation into alleged Islamic extremism.

As I read more of the reports, leaked and official, and investigated more of those involved, I feel a growing unease at what has happened in what are meant to be secular state schools.

I am from Birmingham. I have been to one of those schools placed in special measures, although to help out at rather than to attend. I know these schools and have driven past them a number of times. And it is truly shocking that what has happened has been allowed to occur. 

 

Sir Michael concluded that there has been an “organised campaign [by extremists] to target certain schools” and that head teachers have been “marginalised or forced out of their jobs”. 

There is now “low staff morale” and a “rapid decline in their overall effectiveness.”

The city council “failed to support a number of schools in their efforts to keep pupils safe from potential risks of radicalisation and extremism” and “many staff and some head teachers… were frightened of expressing views contrary to those promoted by governors.”

One head teacher was so afraid she had to meet the inspectors in a supermarket car park.

And what is so terrifying about the whole saga is that none of these schools are faith schools. These schools are meant to empower children to be active citizens in a multi-cultural and increasingly secular society; not restrict them to a view seen by a small part of the community. The schools are meant to teach children how to live together in peace and harmony with people of other faiths, of other religions, of other beliefs.

Teachers and governors, therefore, have an immense responsibility to children to make ready their futures.

But, in his letter to the Education Secretary, Sir Michael wrote: “Children are being badly prepared for life in modern Britain”. 

At the schools, he said, staff and some head teachers felt “’intimidated’, ‘undermined’ [and] ‘bullied’ by governors, and sometimes by senior staff, into making changes they did not support.” Others had been “treated unfairly because of their gender or religious belief.”

In some schools, governors had “made changes to policies and the curriculum on the basis of their own personal beliefs.”

Sir Michael wrote: “the active promotion of a narrow set of values and beliefs in some of the schools is making children vulnerable to segregation and emotional dislocation from wider society.”

How can it be in the United Kingdom in 2014 a climate of fear is allowed to encroach upon the teachers and students of schools?

Below are the findings of a number of reports and my own research into these state, secular schools which have been put into ‘special measures’:

At the ‘inadequate’ Nansen Primary School, pupils had a “limited knowledge of religious beliefs other than Islam.” Art and music were removed from the syllabus of some year groups “at the insistence of the governing body” which pupils described as “unfair”. In a nativity play, governors told staff that they must “not use a doll as the ‘baby Jesus’”. The deputy head teacher, Razwan Faraz, appointed to the position only three years after achieving Qualified Teaching Status, is the brother of a man who was jailed in 2011 for three years for “possessing and distributing material which promoted extremism”. They included footage of beheadings, an al-Qaeda training manual and bomb-making instructions. Faraz, the deputy of this primary school, said at the time the sentence was “a travesty of justice”, that “the moral fibre of this… country is in decline” and “freedom of speech is now being attacked.”

At Park View School, sex education is not taught “effectively”, “equality of opportunity is not promoted well” and “boys and girls are taught separately in religious education and personal development lessons.” Girls said they had been “actively [discouraged]… from speaking to boys and from participating in extra-curricular activities.” From Year 9, “students focus almost entirely on Islam.” In addition, “loudspeakers in the school were used to broadcast the call to prayer… across the school, but were turned off on our visit because of a malfunction.” Pupils were encouraged by posters “to begin and end each lesson with a short prayer.” Non-Muslims are unable to attend alternative assemblies from the weekly-themed Islamic ones. They have “limited” knowledge of arts, different cultures and other beliefs.” External speakers are “not… vetted properly” and one was Shady Al-Suleiman who is “an al-Qaeda sympathiser” and called for the stoning of homosexuals. He can be seen in a picture in the school’s newsletter from late 2013 on page 17. He can also be seen on YouTube saying that extramarital sex should be punished with the death penalty and that music is “haram” (sinful). In addition, two members of staff claimed a senior colleague had praised Al-Qaeda militant Anwar al-Awlaki. So, contrary to the assertions of the only non-Muslim trustee of Park View Educational Trust, the school is certainly not “preparing [pupils] to be part of 21st century multi-cultural Britain.”

(In addition, look through the photos in that newsletter and you find a number showing girls and boys sitting separately (pp. 9, 12, 13, 20).) 

A former member of staff told Channel 5 News how children were given a worksheet in a sex education class saying, “women could not refuse sex to their husbands.” Sky News were told by pupils: "Our school deserves this ... for the things that it has done." Shocking words to come from children. Another said: "Basically, they don't let boys and girls mix and stuff. If they see you talking to a boy they will call your parents or come to your house, which they did to a lot of people." One teacher also reported that a boy and a girl who were seen holding hands were suspended and this had been “done…to quite a few students.” According to the Telegraph, girls were forced to sit at the back of classrooms and GCSE subjects were restricted “to comply with conservative Islamic teaching.” Biology, for example, had “topics such as body structure and the menstrual cycle” removed from the syllabus. According to the Education Funding Agency (EFA) report, “PSHE, Biology, and Sex and Relationship Education… had been restricted to comply with a conservative Islamic teaching”. The theory of evolution had only been “briefly delivered” and students were told “This is not what we believe.” A teacher told the Telegraph that a “member of staff” put up posters in the corridors with the message: “If you do not pray, you are worse than a kafir”, an offensive term for non-Muslims. They were, however, later taken down. Lindsey Clark, the executive head of the school, who confirmed she was to retire in April this year (see this newsletter from the school) told inspectors she had been marginalised by Tahir Alam (see later), the chairman of governors of Park View Educational Trust, and the school principal, Mohammed Hussain. She was awarded an OBE in 2013 for taking the school from “inadequate” to “outstanding”. One candidate for replacing Ms Clark is Mr. Hussain, who was witnessed by a former teacher, Nigel Sloan, a head of drama, giving “mind-blowing” anti-Western assemblies to pupils, saying that America is “the evil in the world” and “the cause of all famine.” Sloan was told by pupils that they had been warned about him in the local mosque. Female pupils told ITV news that they had been discriminated against by teachers and that girls had been sent home from a tennis tournament because they were too “revealing”. According to the EFA report, the school is not “welcoming to all faiths and none” and there are “examples of non-compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and the Independent School Standards, for example the practice of segregating girls and boys in some classes in a manner which could constitute less favourable treatment of girls.” The Daily Mail found evidence that one teacher, who, according to his LinkedIn page, is a head of department, “[backed] Islamic extremists” on his Facebook page. Unfortunately I am unable to view his wall however. 

At the “inadequate” Oldknow Academy, governors have “not taken steps to protect [children] from the risks of radicalisation and extremism” and “are endeavouring to promote a particular and narrow faith-based ideology.” The Academy is “taking on the practices of an Islamic faith school.” Pupils are unable to learn about “tolerance and harmony between different cultural and religious traditions” and pupils are not “always safe on trips.” A newly introduced second Islamic assembly is “led and supervised only by the acting principal with no other adults present.” Non-Muslim staff can no longer lead Friday assemblies and the words “white prostitute” to describe Western white women had been used in front of the children. The Christian special assembly at Christmas and a termly assembly by a Christian organisation have been cancelled and “during a recent academy fete, raffles and tombolas were banned because they are considered un-Islamic.” Governors organised a trip to Saudi Arabia (marketed as a modern languages trip but — in breach of the Equality Act 2010 — exclusively for Muslim staff and pupils; the schools also failed to send funds through a formal tender process as they should have done) with £50,000 of the Academy’s money used even though “pupils from other faiths were not able to join the trip.” The Principal said she had been “slapped down” by governors when she had suggested taking all the children — not just Muslims — to go to cheaper destinations such as Morocco. The hotels booked were 5-star and were part of a trip which “[exhibited] an extravagance in the use of public funds.” Some money “was un-receipted and without a breakdown of what was being claimed.” In addition, the brother of the governor on the trip visited him during the 2012 visit and stayed for two nights at the hotel. There is no evidence that he had received DBS checks. 

According to the review of the school by the Education Funding Agency, “the way the academy is trying to meet the needs of Muslim pupils means that the academy is taking on the practices of an Islamic faith school and in this regard is not promoting community cohesion.” Staff told the EFA inspectors that the school had “increasingly [become] Islamic over the past year.” In addition, “staff and children told us that a number of activities that had previously taken place, including elements of the summer fair (due to some stalls having an element of gambling, which is contrary to the Islamic faith), elements of the Year 3 2013 summer pantomime, the Year 4 Diwali production, Christmas card design competition, Christmas parties and Christmas tree had been stopped in the last year” which they found “[upsetting]”. Over the past year, organised trips to churches, synagogues and gurdwaras "have been largely phased out.” “PSHE is not currently taught” and a new scheme to be introduced will not teach the children about details of sexual reproduction. An Arabic and maths teacher — according to the school’s website, that man is Asif Khan — “covered his ears all the way through a music lesson which he was observing (a stricter interpretation of Quran / Hadith is that listening to musical instruments is not allowed)” and his Year 6 maths class was the only one where “every girl had her head covered and where girls sat at the back of the class.” He also told an assembly that “Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem” and “We don’t celebrate Christmas”, expecting a reply of “No” from the children who “looked around at each other nervously as they did not really know what to do” and “staff walked out… in disgust”. He also told a Muslim member of staff that “she was not sufficiently covered up.” He did not shake hands with the female education advisor from the Department of Education and instead stepped back and “turned away from her” because “he would not shake hands with women for religious reasons.” The advisor felt “threatened by the teacher’s behaviour towards her” and the team “concluded that it would be difficult for this individual to keep those views separate from his teaching” and that “he is not preparing young people for life in a multi-cultural, multi-faith Britain.” The “particular interpretation of Islam” was “inappropriate for a non-faith state school” and allowing it to take place “is a further breach of the Independent School Standards.” 

Nine pages of “breaches of the Funding Agreement and/or legislation applicable to Academies” can be found here on pp. 20-28. In addition, one parent told the Daily Telegraph that his daughter, who does not wear a veil, was told “her hair is un-Islamic.” Belal Ballali, the spokesman of the newly formed Parents’ Association has, according to the Daily Telegraph, “close links to alleged terrorists”. His Facebook page calls for the release of Moazzam Begg, who has faced terrorism charges relating to the civil war in Syria. (Begg was also incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay for nearly three years but was never charged with any offence). The Telegraph also says the spokesman has visited Syria at least once and possibly three times recently. He also defended Abdullah Deghayes, an 18-year old who, according to the BBC, was “apparently killed fighting with a militant group linked to Al-Qaeda against President Assad's forces.” Ballali said: “The continued persecution, under the guise of anti-terror prosecution, of those whom we should celebrate as heroes, is a smear on our justice system.” He also criticises the media for “criminalising our hero[e]s, who… left the UK and gave up their lives for the freedom of the Syrian people.”

Saltley School and Specialist Science College was also deemed “inadequate” by Ofsted. The governors “refuse to accept that the school is in a state of crisis” and spent the school budget “unwisely”. Students “have limited knowledge of homophobic bullying” and the “equality policy is out of date.” The governing body “insisted [a new policy was] not circulated” and some members of staff said “they are treated unequally because of their beliefs, religion or background.” Governors, the report says, “have not addressed this significant concern.” There is “a palpable absence of leadership.” In addition, governors “do not see any need to engage with external agencies to make sure students are safe from and aware of the risks of radicalisation and extremism.”

At Golden Hillock School, “sex and relationships education has not been delivered through a carefully planned curriculum” which has “only very recently [been] approved” by governors. In addition, “students’ understanding of other religions is scant, as the religious education curriculum focuses primarily on the study of Islam.” Some female members of staff said they “felt intimidated by the way in which some male members of the school community speak to them.” Five Year 11 Christian pupils were left to “teach themselves” in religious education because the teacher gave all their time “to the students who are doing the Islamic course.” Students were also segregated in some lessons — the EFA report said “students told us that they were required to sit in the places which were given by the teachers.” Senior staff and two heads of department told the EFA inspectors that “staff had been given instructions by governors banning discussion with students on any matters regarding sexual orientation and intimacy.”

Three of the schools — Nansen Primary School, Park View and Golden Hillock School, schools which restrict “some elements of the curriculum, including the social, moral, spiritual and cultural provision…to a conservative Islamic perspective”  — are run by Park View Educational Trust and their chairman of governors, Tahir Alam (himself an Ofsted inspector who also works for CfBTand Serco). He has, according to this report, “an inappropriate day-to-day role in the running of the schools.” He published a 72-page document in 2007 by the Muslim Council of Britain in which he stated schools should not teach “potentially harmful forms of music” which “promote immoral behaviour” or contain “unethical and un-Islamic lyrics.” Plays with “physical contact between males and females” and those which were “associated with celebrating aspects of other religions” should be discouraged. Homosexual relations were “not acceptable practices according to other Islamic teachings.” Dance, he wrote, should not be taught as it is “not consistent with the Islamic requirements for modesty” and performances in front of mixed audiences “may be objectionable.” Schools should not schedule swimming lessons during Ramadan, in case pupils swallowed water and broke their fast. 

(A list of breaches of the Funding Agreement and/or legislation applicable to Academies at his schools can be found on pp. 16-21 here including evidence of “direct discrimination”) (In addition, three teaching staff at Park View and Golden Hillock Schools were arrested in March “on suspicion of possessing extreme pornography” — do I need to comment on their vetting processing having also shown that an Islamist visited Park View School?)

Some people and groups, including the Trust itself, have accused Ofsted of “[dehumanising]” the school community. 

Indeed, one example of Islamist apologist sentiments is this letter, written to the Guardian by 20 people: “We call upon the government to reject such tarnished inspection reports and seek a more transparent process of inspections which truly places the education and wellbeing of the children of Birmingham foremost.” Two of the signatories are members of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, which, the Guardian fails to warn readers, called for the release of the ‘Blind Sheikh’, who was convicted for his role in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Another signatory, Ibrahim Hewitt — helpfully called an “education consultant” by the Guardian — heads a charity, Interpal, branded a “terrorist” organisation by the US (see page 7 of this US Treasury sanctions document. The UK Charity Commission, however, found no evidence of raising money for Hamas) and wrote in a book “Islam recognizes the leadership of men over women”, “if a woman is unable to satisfy the sexual or other needs of her husband he may consider taking another wife”, those “found guilty of adultery are to be stoned to death”, homosexuality is “depraved”, “[an] evil which could corrupt and pollute the whole society” and gay people are “[deprived] of decent taste, decent morals, and a decent manner of living.” He says: “If people had all followed the way of life of Islam, no one would have suffered and died from AIDS.” Massoud Shadjareh, another signatory, said Abu Hamza was “demonised” and another, MG Khan is actually a governor of one of the schools (Saltley) to be put into special measures and so is suffering from a conflict of interest. 

In addition, as Andrew Gilligan points out, “the other problem with the argument that “Ofsted used to like us” is that it feels a little bit like, say, Lehman Brothers protesting that the Financial Services Authority didn’t raise any concerns in the years before it went bust.” 

Scandals happen when inspectors are revealed to have previously failed to do their jobs properly. 

It is tragic that pupils and parents have been let down by a small group of individuals. In most of the reports, pupils are described as “courteous and respectful” and “eager to learn”. Relationships between students are “good” and attitudes to learning are “generally positive”.

But there seems to be elements of extremism in these schools which the children are forced to endure.

It is not only extremist to fly planes into buildings or blow people up. 

It is extremist when classes are segregated; when a man who defended his brother against terrorism charges by saying it infringed his freedom of speech became a deputy of a school only three years after becoming a teacher; when successful head teachers have been kicked out or ostracised; when a teacher is so scared of talking to inspectors she had to talk to them in secret in a supermarket car park; when teachers refuse to teach certain areas of Biology and the arts because they are supposedly un-Islamic; when an al-Qaeda sympathiser and fundamentalist Islamist is allowed to speak at a school; when a school trip takes place to Saudi Arabia which discriminates non-Muslims and sees one man join a trip without passing a DBS check; when a school breaks the Equality Act 2010; when a teacher calls for the release of a man who has appeared at the Old Bailey on terrorism charges; when Christmas trees, parties and cards are banned; when trips to other religions’ places of worship are stopped; when a man would not listen to music whilst supervising a music lesson and when he orders a member of staff to cover up properly; when Christian children are forced to teach themselves RE; when a chairman of governors “[discourages]” dance, and when a Muslim teacher describes white women as “prostitutes”.  

Surely that is extremism.

And that is why: “In accordance with the Education Act 2005, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is of the opinion that [these schools require] special measures because [they are] failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school[s] are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school[s].”

The schools, whose job is to open horizons and not to narrow minds, have been hijacked by zealots. 

According to the mission statement of Park View School, the school’s job is “to ensure every child becomes a global citizen and for them to be enriched and be able to contribute to the literature and culture of communities around the world.”

According to a letter written to the Prime Minister by Park View Education Trust, “education…should serve to develop in pupils a well informed and balanced perspective that contributes to the creation of cohesive and harmonious communities.”

According to a statement by the Principal at Oldknow Academy, “we strive to provide a climate which enables children to achieve high academic standards, to develop an understanding of self and others and to care about the world in which they live.”

According to Saltley School’s prospectus: “We are committed to providing a caring and safe environment for all our students so that they can learn in an atmosphere of mutual respect for each other’s views and approaches to life.”

The schools have failed to do what they set out to achieve.

But there is a much more frightening and much more dangerous consequence. Brigadier General Abdulellah al Basheer, Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council (known to most of us as the Syrian National Council, or a coalition of moderate Syrian opposition groups), wrote to the Times in May: “More than 60 per cent of foreign fighters in Syria have joined ISIL, and the majority are from the UK.” The work of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, can be seen all over the internet. Just type in Keferghan — one of Time’s photos of the year was from there. Crucifixions, beheadings, massacres, suicide bombings (this one by a British man) are carried out by these people. Does it not frighten you that the majority of foreign fighters that have joined ISIL are mostly from our country and that Syria is now “the greatest terrorist threat to Britain”? If innocent children are not protected from radicalisation and fanaticism, this could be their tragic end.

Teachers, governors, inspectors, politicians, all of us must never let people fall into that barbarism.

Some complained that Ofsted were looking for extremism.

What a pity they found substantial evidence of it.

By Tom Fenton

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