By David Urquhart
Last week leaders of faiths gathered at the Central Mosque to reaffirm the importance of good interfaith relations in this city and to issue the following statement: “We are profoundly concerned that some of the media have distorted the discussion on what has become known as ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, demonising sections of the community in a completely unacceptable way.
“As faith leaders in this city we wish to affirm our commitment to education for every child in Birmingham that promotes their emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual development and equips them to live well as citizens of a global city.
“Birmingham is a super-diverse city of a million people, from over 180 countries, with a rich variety of faith and secular beliefs. In the largest UK city outside London, every child matters absolutely. Working out what good education looks like, especially for the 37 per cent of the population that is under 25, is really important.
“As leaders of faith communities we are determined to play our part in starting a wider conversation with a full range of partners. Together we can look at the highest standards of governance, excellence in leadership and mutual expressions of faith in schools. It is vital for the cohesion of the whole city that each child in Birmingham has the very best educational experience.
“The cohesion of this city is built on years of interfaith communication and dialogue, joint practical action and friendships between people of different faiths that have built resilient communities and a strong core of shared values. We remain committed to build trusting relationships and joint working across the city so that no person or group is excluded and we can all flourish together, enjoying, sharing and celebrating the richness brought to this city by its diversity.”
Operation Trojan Horse has become a media hot potato with allegations and accusations being thrown around social media, blogs and websites and the national media.
The discussions have threatened to polarise communities and over-simplify the issues as the cut and thrust of debate relies on hearsay and speculation provoking defensiveness and anger.
This is not a simple issue and we should not fall into the trap of talking about communities as if they were all the same or by grouping together people who may disagree profoundly with one another.
In our super-diverse city we have to be wise about the differences that exist within particular faiths and the complexity of social identity in 21st century UK.
Equally we cannot have areas that are off-limits for investigation and exploration. The careless use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ by some people is a threat to honest discussion and cohesion in our city.
This is especially true when we need the maturity both for offering constructive criticism and for bringing very real concerns to the correct authorities.
Our schools and colleges are at the forefront of diversity and do a magnificent job. Brimming with creativity and talent, enhanced by culture, language and faith, their achievements are often outstanding. The ability and willingness to welcome pupils from across the globe can be celebrated.
These schools need strong and wise leadership that encourages and supports staff, creating a safe working environment free from intimidation or bullying.
It is laudable that our schools are engaging with parents in many different and innovative ways but it is equally important that no single agenda is allowed to dominate.
Head teachers, teachers and governors are well practised in the art of walking the tightrope between parental aspiration for their child and the needs of the whole school. This is a well known professional balancing act and needs to be achieved with diplomacy, tact and skill.
We have high expectations of our schools. Not only do we expect individual children from all backgrounds to achieve their full potential and make full progress but we expect that the needs of all pupils, not just the majority, are catered for.
This means equipping staff to understand pupils’ backgrounds, it means knowing the history of communities, it means being attentive to what and how we celebrate and it means learning to live our faith communally.
An important part of this will mean that schools need to encourage pupils to meet and mix with peers from different ethnic or faith backgrounds. We are privileged in Birmingham to have The Feast charity ( www.thefeast.org.uk ) working with us which does superb work both in schools and in communities to bring Christian and Muslim teenagers together to grow trusting relationships.
One of their latest initiatives that I heard of this week will be to take pupils from Golden Hillock Secondary School to act as reading mentors to children from a nearby Church of England Primary School.
Bringing together pupils from different schools, even if they are of the same faith helps them to meet new people and make a contribution to wider society.
Forming partnerships, working together, working transparently is at the heart of what it means to live our faiths well in a global city.
We have a tremendous history of interfaith cohesion spanning many years. As we become more and more diverse it is essential that this co-operation becomes the everyday work of all citizens and we seek to build understanding at all levels between and within our faiths.