The “Trojan Horse” affair continues to fascinate Westminster, with Labour claiming children are still at risk from “radical, hard-line agendas” while Conservatives claim the incident illustrates the need to stand up for British values.
I put “Trojan Horse” in quotation marks because the phrase comes from a letter which just about everyone, from the city council to the chairs various inquiries, believes was probably a fake.
However, MP Graham Stuart, the chairman of the Commons Education Committee, has remarked that the letter, purporting to be from a Birmingham Islamist to a like-minded contact in Bradford, set out in detail methods for influencing or taking over schools which could prove very effective if they were put into practice.
What did happen, according to an inquiry commissioned by the Government, is that Birmingham was targeted by a “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained” campaign to introduce “an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools”.
The inquiry led by Peter Clarke, a former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, highlighted examples of religious views or practices being imposed on some non-faith Birmingham schools, including pupils branded “kaffir” if they failed to attend prayers, children told that women who refused to have sex with husbands would be sent to hell and non-Muslim children excluded from school trips supposedly designed to teach foreign languages – which were really religious pilgrimages.
And he warned: “There is incontrovertible evidence that both senior officers and elected members of Birmingham City Council were aware of concerns about activities that bear a striking resemblance to those described in the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter, many months before it surfaced.”
For Conservatives, this demonstrates the need to stand up for British values – and to give a kick up the backside to local authorities or any other public body which fails to oppose extremist views.
Speaking to the Commons Education Committee, Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, linked the Trojan Horse affair to the child sex abuse scandal in Rotherham, where an inquiry found 1,400 children had been sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013, mainly by men of Pakistani heritage.
Mrs Morgan told the committee: “It will absolutely require not just in Birmingham but in Rotherham and other places as well there to be a cultural change which is that we should not be shy about talking about our own values.
“We should not turn a blind eye when concerns are raised.
“And we should know that there are people who don’t subscribe to our values and will attempt some sort of entryism, whether its in relation to a particular faith or any other extremist views.”
It followed the announcement by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, at the Conservative conference in Birmingham that the Government is to launch a new anti-extremism strategy.
The old strategy, called Prevent, was designed to combat views promoting violence or terrorism. But the new one will be wider-ranging, she said.
Mrs May said: “It will aim to undermine and eliminate extremism in all its forms – neo-Nazism and other forms of extremism as well as Islamist extremism – and it will aim to build up society to identify extremism, confront it, challenge it and defeat it.”
She added: “Here in the city of Birmingham, local people know the problem only too well. Because it was here that extremists infiltrated state schools and sought to impose a hardline curriculum on children.”
Labour takes a different approach – and says the affair illustrates the wisdom of its proposal to create new “Directors of School Standards” in every area.
But it’s noticeable that Labour will have no truck with suggestions that the problems in Birmingham’s classrooms have been exaggerated or invented as a result of anti-Muslim prejudice.
Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, a Staffordshire MP, insists that children really were in danger – and still are.
His latest statement came after inspectors Ofsted warned this week that five Birmingham schools declared failing by inspectors in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair have still not improved.
Mr Hunt said: “It is utterly incomprehensible that six months after these serious concerns became public David Cameron’s Government has still not taken action, putting children at risk from radical, hard-line agendas and damaging school standards.
“It is gross negligence from the Prime Minister and his Tory-led Government and they must urgently explain their inaction.
“It is clear that the Government has absolutely no idea or plan for tackling the vulnerable situation at these schools. Labour will take tough action quickly, introducing robust local oversight of all schools through new Directors of School Standards in every area, to spot and challenge problems before they set in and root-out falling standards.”
Both major parties believe the problems in Birmingham schools were real, but they have very different ideas about how to stop it happening again.