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Birmingham schools panic: Horses for courses

The Birmingham school panic is an ironic product of post-Thatcher Britain, writes Paul Demarty

As conspiracy theorists like to say, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Before departing for the United States, where her brand of millenarian conservatism is in more demand, ‘Mad’ Melanie Phillips published a scurrilous little book called Londonistan, advancing various swivel-eyed notions about the takeover of the capital by Islamic fundamentalists.

Judging by recent media coverage, she merely got the location wrong. Let us expect that the second edition will be renamed Brumistan. The press has run enthusiastically with a story, first launched in March, about an alleged “five-step plan” adopted by militant Salafists to Islamify schools. A letter outlining the plan - called, with a guilelessness worthy of Four Lions, ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ - was passed to Birmingham council.

How does one go about this ‘Islamification’? According to the letter, the first step is to spread among the parents the idea “that the school is corrupting their children with sex education, teaching about homosexuals, making their children pray Christian prayers and mixed swimming and sports” (I must have missed the surahs about PE lessons).

This will enable parents of an Islamist bent to oust headteachers and governors, and replace them with safe pairs of hands, who will ensure the school is run according to “strict Islamic principles”. The letter - purportedly advertising the strategy to Bradford-based Islamists - claims that “we have caused a great amount of organised disruption in Birmingham and as a result now have our own academies and are on the way to getting rid of more headteachers and taking over their schools”.

Perhaps sensing that even observant Muslims might object to this kind of skulduggery, the author defends his methods: “Whilst sometimes the practices we use may not seem the correct way to do things, you must remember that this is say [sic] ‘jihad’ and as such using all measures possible to win the war is acceptable.”

It is a measure of the continued official twitchiness about Islamism that this rather incompetent-looking plot is being treated quite so ‘seriously’. Michael Gove, the Teflon-coated education secretary, has ordered Ofsted inspections at 15 Birmingham schools and dispatched Peter Clarke, a so-called ‘counter-terrorism tsar’, to the city to investigate.

However, there are serious doubts as to the authenticity of the Trojan Horse letter - its authenticity is disputed by the alleged conspirators, among others. On a superficial level, it has rather all the hallmarks of more famous hoaxes, like the Protocols of the elders of Zion - just fancy that: Muslim extremists are doing exactly what rightwing ideologues accuse them of, and more or less admit to their own maleficent nature. The correspondence to stereotype is a little too suspiciously perfect.

Birmingham police have consistently treated seriously the possibility that it was a hoax, and the plot thickened with the arrest of four teaching assistants referred to in the letter for fraud, in an investigation the cops claim is unconnected. On the other hand, local educational grandees do report being under pressure from conservative Muslim parents - but that, surely, is hardly a shocking scandal. People with staunch religious convictions, whatever gods they worship, have a tendency to demand that be reflected in their children’s education; evangelical Christians do much the same thing.

Headbangers in both religions - and others - have found their way cleared by successive decades of government policy in many spheres. Most directly implicated, of course, is education. The immediate context here is the ongoing privatisation of education, which was first really kicked into gear by the Blair-era introduction of academies. The idea was to solicit private-sector investment in - and terribly ‘efficient’ control over - schools; but many of the most enthusiastic participants had other things in mind than the ‘honest’ pursuit of a profit. Peter Vardy, a creationist Christian reactionary and used-car salesman, became the most notorious spouter of religious mumbo-jumbo to involve himself in academies.

Under the present government, a series of ingenious wheezes on the part of the education secretary have accelerated this process. There is something we might call the ‘dialectic of Gove’, where what appears to be a bungle or gaffe on his part turns out, from the owl of Minerva’s point of view, to be part of the master plan. He immediately canned Gordon Brown’s Building Schools for the Future investment scheme, leaving schools in the lurch and critics jeering; but then offered the best schools bribes to become academies. With BSF gone, many had no choice.

His way of making offers heads can’t refuse also applies to the bottom of the educational pile, with sufficiently poor Ofsted results being cause for a school to be put into ‘special measures’, which in practical terms nowadays means being put out to tender. On top of that, there is the ‘free schools’ programme, which - in theory - enables parents to set up schools themselves: yet another option eagerly exploited by obscurantists of all kinds.


Despite the free schools spiel of returning power over education to local communities, the broader background to this is the centralisation of state power. Margaret Thatcher went to war with local authorities as part of an offensive against the Labour Party and the left - municipal politics in major cities offered a fragmented, ineffective but irritating challenge to the rapacious imperatives of high Thatcherism, so the central government responded by curtailing what power ‘municipal socialists’ had.

Education had a highly significant role in this little battle, since the quickest and surest way to get a panic going in The Sun and the Daily Mail was to cry foul at the loony leftie rubbish being taught to ‘our kids’. The homophobic section 28 was a knee-jerk response to one such scare. More broadly, central state interference in the affairs of schools has been steadily ratcheted up over the intervening years, with the increasingly Kafkaesque ‘surprise’ visits of Ofsted, league tables, targets …

… And academies, and even free schools. Both are, in one important aspect, further ruses to clobber the educational remit of local authorities. They further strengthen the hand of central, as against local, government; schools are more the playthings of the department for education and Whitehall than they ever were.

Perpetual central state interference with the running of schools, however, is not synonymous with state control. Along with Gove’s recent embarrassments over the fates of several of his flagship free schools, the Trojan Horse farrago underlines the fact that Big Brother cannot, in fact, watch all the people all the time. Gove is running up against yet another legacy of the Thatcher years - official state multiculturalism, founded by earlier Labour governments, but solidified into general policy in the Thatcher years as an acceptable way to manage bubbling ethnic tensions.

By setting various defined ethnic groups against each other in competition for municipal handouts, multiculturalism strengthens the hand of petty-patriarchal ‘community leaders’ against the broad masses of ethnic-minority people. This - again - finds its paradigmatic expression in the power of the church or the mosque. Whether or not the Trojan Horse plot itself is real, the efforts of well-rooted Muslim (and Christian, and other) communities to shape their immediate social environment has - like all things - a material basis.

On the left, we gained a fascinating window into ethnocentric municipal politics with the farce of Respect in east London (and, for that matter, Birmingham), with a seemingly endless parade of petty bourgeois opportunists (in the literal sense - small businessmen with short-term goals in mind) wheeled out as council candidates, seeing Respect as a temporarily more amenable vehicle for local horse-trading than Iraq-era Labour. (As Respect melted away, so these types disappeared into all three main parties, according to personal preference.)

Multiculturalism has the effect not of integrating ethnic and religious minorities into ‘British values’, but of preserving in a stable, ossified way their separation. Moreover, it manages reactionary ideology - racism, Islamophobia and so on - rather than doing away with them. State anti-racism is a kind of hamster wheel: no matter how fast the gnomes of Whitehall and successive governments run, they always end up in the same place.

The centralising, statifying impulse of contemporary capitalism (by far the defining feature of our era, in spite of pretensions to ‘liberalism’) simply makes these outbursts ever more ridiculous. Gove has had every hysterical knee-jerk reaction possible to this two-bit plot (which may or may not actually exist), short of sending in the Paras. We may be sure that parents of a religious persuasion will continue to intervene in their children’s education, and that some of those parents will be Muslims, and this ridiculous scene will be repeated.

Despite its chaotic, farcical reality, there is a genuine attraction to the schemes of a Gove - a glimpse of the opportunity to control important aspects of our daily lives, by restoring power to a position closer to and more easily graspable by ordinary people. The ordinary people in this case are religious reactionaries, yes, but the appeal holds more broadly. If religious types are most keen to set up free schools and academies, there are also initiatives on the part of scientists, academics and others to start them. All thus participate in the privatisation and balkanisation of education; but they do so because this is the most direct route to take back a small amount of control from the grey men.

As opposed to the pseudo-decentralisation of Michael Gove, we advocate genuine control by teachers, parents and students over education; which, naturally, is incompatible with the handing over of schools to businesses (academies) or the concealed subjection to the dictates of the market, the postcode lottery and the central state apparatus (free schools). Far from the stereotype, communists prefer power to be exercised at the lowest possible level, to give as many people the experience of running society as possible.

The lesson of the Trojan Horse farrago is that, despite all contrary bluster, Tory governments offer no power back to anyone, if they can help it.