Muslims in Birmingham and elsewhere have found themselves under intense scrutiny after a panic about a “plot” to take over schools.
Religious activities are being lumped in with “extremism” and terrorism. Young children have been thrust under the spotlight of the national media.
Many now fear that the racism they have struggled with all their lives will come back to hit a new generation with a vengeance.
Amina is a parent at Oldknow Academy, a primary school in Birmingham. This is one of the schools singled out for criticism by education secretary Michael Gove and new investigations by school inspectorate Ofsted. Amina is also a governor at another school.
“This is blatant racism,” she told Socialist Worker. “There’s nothing tangible in the Ofsted reports.
“I want Michael Gove to put it in black and white—what have we done wrong?”
Amina described the school as “truly outstanding”—and she should know. Like many Muslim parents she takes an active interest in her daughter’s schooling because racism had made her own education such a struggle.
“The system really did fail me,” she said. “My education was woefully inadequate. I wasn’t prepared for real life. I didn’t get what my daughter gets now.
“There was a lot of racism. I couldn’t complete my GCSEs at one school because of racist bullying. I had to go to another school. I had to teach myself.”
Amina was just four years old when she came to Britain, and grew up in an area that was majority white. In one school she was one of “only about ten” Asian students.
And she learned that any education she or her own children would get would have to be fought for.
“It was because of my dad that I learned things,” she said. “He always said education is one thing no one can take away from you. He put a lot of stress on me getting an education.”
That’s why Amina is furious at the accusations against Oldknow today. Despite being found “outstanding” by Ofsted a few months ago, it has now been downgraded to “inadequate”.
It was found not to be doing enough to protect children from extremism—without any clear guidance on what it was supposed to do.
“There’s no Islamic ethos at Oldknow,” said Amina. “But if the children wish to pray, the school would allow them. Is that such a terrible thing?
“I am a practising Muslim but I don’t teach my daughter to hate anyone who isn’t. I tell her that there are many people who make the world go round. We don’t seek out arguments with people. But this argument has come to our doorsteps.”
One recurring theme in the current scare has been the influence of governors and parents in how schools are run. This is hardly unusual in schools, whatever their intake.
In part it reflects changes in the school system. But this is just part of the picture. For Muslim parents there are also two sets of double standards to contend with.
They have to do so much more to get the best for their children. And if they do, the kind of behaviour that is shrugged off as “pushy” in others is cast as aggressiveness or, worse, a sinister conspiracy.
A teacher at another school named in the anonymous letter that alleged a “Trojan Horse plot” talked to Socialist Worker about the challenges there.
“Our school was a failed school when I first joined it,” he explained. “It’s improved every year. But that challenges the stereotypes that some people have about Muslim children.
“Some people think Muslim children are only good for service jobs. I asked one governor about raising aspirations of children. I asked why they weren’t being sent to anything except sales jobs for work experience.
“I was told that their parents want them to be doctors, but that that would never happen.”
He believes that parents’ desire to stop the system failing their children is sometimes misinterpreted.
“There’s been a huge failure of these children. And that’s why some parents have sometimes come across as aggressive in trying to put a different opinion across.
“I don’t agree with that approach. But I understand why they do it. The reason is these schools have been treated like they are nothing. These are facts, not just fears or perceptions.”
Teachers are under scrutiny too, with the racist scaremongering about Muslims combining to give a nasty extra edge to the Ofsted meddling that all teachers resent.
Asif Khan is an Arabic and Maths teacher at Oldknow who was previously rated as outstanding. But after the Trojan Horse investigation, it seemed as if inspectors treated him differently.
“The children in year 4 Arabic, I have only recently given them handwriting books,” he explained. “We used to use the whiteboard. One inspector was looking at the books. I said, ‘That’s not their actual work. Would you like to see their work?’ They said ‘No thank you that won’t be necessary.’
“Then in the report they said the lesson was inadequate because the children haven’t done any work and haven’t made any progress.”
If there is a plot to make our schools less tolerant places, it isn’t coming from Muslims.
There isn’t a shred of evidence to back up the Trojan Horse allegations.
But the witch hunt is adding to a stench of racism and suspicion that is poisoning our education system.
The teacher said, “I grew up in Alum Rock, where a lot of these youngsters come from. It’s a deprived area.
“I came into teaching to give hope to them. But now they’re being told that Muslim teachers aren’t role models—they’re extremists.”
Amina added, “I want my daughter to be involved in British society. But they keep pushing us down.”
The war on terror created a climate of fear
Politicians and police forces have tried to equate Islam and terrorism for more than a decade. The Trojan Horse allegations have made this worse.
For Rebecca, a Muslim parent and home tutor in Birmingham, the effect this has on even very young children is alarming.
“I teach a nine year old boy who goes to one of the schools,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I noticed that he was very distracted and not performing as well as usual. He said, ‘There are lots of cameras outside my school and I’m really worried.’”
For older children the sense of suspicion is even more intolerable. “My children don’t even go to any of the schools but they’re still affected because they’re Muslims,” said Rebecca.
After seeing years of high-profile raids and arrests against Muslims over “terror plots” that never were, she fears the smallest things could make them a target.
“My son goes to a Church of England school,” she said. “He’s studying nanotechnology and I had to tell him not to look at the internet on my computer because I was worried that we would get into trouble.”