The Muslim of Council of Britain welcomes the Education Secretary Nicola Morgan’s assurance that the government supports ‘the right of Muslim parents to be involved in their children’s schools and their commitment to take leading roles in public life.’ The Education Secretary was responding to the latest report issued by Peter Clarke, who was asked to investigate Birmingham schools following the so-called “Trojan Horse” letter.
The letter purports to outline a plot by Muslims to takeover schools and impose extremist or hard-line views of Islam. The document proved to be a fake, but accusations of an extremist plot still persists. The Muslim Council of Britain unequivocally condemns all terrorism and extremism and we have not seen any evidence to date of such activities in Birmingham schools.
Mr Clarke says in his report that “I have seen no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with governance generally” (10.1). However, a central feature of Mr Clarke’s report talks of shortcomings in governance that needs to be addressed.
Clearly, there are issues of poor governance as outlined in this and previous reports by OFSTED, and last week, by Ian Kershaw who was commissioned by Birmingham City Council. We call for stronger guidance from OFSTED to ensure parents can continue to be encouraged to be strong members of the governing council, empowered to be effective in those roles.
Responding to Accusations of Extremism
Mr Clarke’s inquiry was initiated after allegations of extremism were put to the governors and teachers of some Birmingham schools.
Muslims, being part and parcel of British society, have condemned terrorism in the strongest terms, and the extremism that lead people to commit such acts. As we have stated time and again, the causes of terrorism are complex. But there is scant evidence that the education system or the Muslim community are the reasons for why people turn to terrorism.
Mr Clarke’s own report states clearly that he was not looking for or has not found any evidence of terrorism, radicalisation or violent extremism. But Mr Clarke does state that: “I found clear evidence that there are a number of people, associated with each other and in positions of influence in schools and governing bodies, who espouse, endorse or fail to challenge extremist views.” (p.12)
The evidence Mr Clarke cites, for example of social media conversations exhibiting inappropriate behaviour are indeed very disturbing and may constitute grounds for disciplinary, procedural and legal action. However, we do take issue with Mr Clarke’s approach that chooses to ascribe guilt by association, and by conflating conservative Muslim practises to a supposed ideology and agenda to ‘Islamise’ secular schools.
The Role of the Muslim Council of Britain
Without ever approaching the Muslim Council of Britain during his investigation, Mr Clarke nevertheless chooses to describe the MCB as part of a movement that aims to ‘to increase the role of Islam in education’ and ‘Islamise’ the provision of educational services.
We reject this assertion. Mr Clarke, like many commentators hostile to the British Muslim community, have repeated this assertion due to a document published by the Muslim Council of Britain in 2007 which was co-authored by the then chair of the MCB’s Education Committee, Mr Tahir Alam. The document was cited as a ‘manifesto’ for this so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ plot. Mr Alam, who has since been succeeded by three other chairs, was of course the object of Mr Clarke’s Criticism.
We cannot comment on the allegations directed at Mr Alam of his role in Birmingham. However, the MCB document in question, which is undergoing a routine review, was always aimed at being advisory in nature, helping schools engage with Muslim parents. It was prepared with contributions from well-respected educationalists and was launched publicly. The recommendations were not prescriptive, and schools were not obliged to take them on.
We agree with point 187 of Ian Kershaw’s report which states that the MCB guidance offers practical guidelines and should not be interpreted as a prescriptive code. And while schools are encouraged to accommodate Muslim parents, they should be read alongside statutory government guidance and toolkits, for example the DfE Guidance on the Equality Act 2010 and the “Public Sector Equality Duty Guidance for Schools” published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.”
Nevertheless, because the MCB has published this document, Mr Clarke’s report appears to suggest that the Muslim Council of Britain was part of a so-called movement to take over schools to promote a “particular hard-line strand of Sunni Islam that raises concerns about their vulnerability to radicalisation in the future.”
We find this to be a patently absurd charge, given that we are a broad-based organisation with both Sunni and Shia traditions represented, where we have always spoken out consistently and very loudly against extremism and sectarianism, and have always spoken out for positive integration of all our communities.
For the avoidance of any doubt, the MCB call for an inclusive education, and we call for fairness, not favours. We do not call for a curriculum that promotes segregation, or an outlook on life that does not accept the pluralism that exists in Britain today.
We are however concerned about the phrase ‘particular strand of Sunni Islam’: given how diverse our Muslim communities are, it is unwise for any of us to pass judgement on the acceptability of certain strands of Islam over others. It is not for the state to define the theological boundaries of the Islamic faith and to create an “approved version of Islam”. Such an aim is contrary to the spirit of our free society and beyond the scope of debate on education of children in school.
We are troubled that Mr Clarke delves into intricacies of Muslim theological debate raising serious allegations against a number of national Muslim organisations including the MCB. Yet, contrary to fundamental requirement of fairness, Mr Clarke has not invited the MCB to explain its position. This is a serious failure on the part of Mr Clarke’s investigation, particularly considering the questions raised about his appointment for this task.
Empowering and Achieving
The primary responsibility of schools is to prepare children for life, assisting them to acquire skills and help them to be successful citizens and professionals. Educational attainment built on academic rigour and critical thinking is at the heart of that task.
The schools investigated as part of the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair had made great strides over the years with some moving from single figure pass rates to some of the best results across the country. The government needs to appreciate that this was possible due to determination and commitment of parents, pupils, teachers and governors. Unfounded and malicious allegations threaten the life chances of a generation of our young people, the onus is clearly on OFSTED and Department for Education to monitor the progress of academies and not be side-tracked by culture wars initiated by divisive commentators.[ends]
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