Trojan Horse: Role of faith in state education under scrutiny

Park View School in Birmingham, one of three schools inspected as part of the "Trojan Horse" investigations, has been placed in special measures.Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The role of faith in state-funded education is coming under closer scrutiny after a coalition of religious leaders and humanists has called for a wide-ranging review following publication of two government reports into the so-called "Trojan Horse" affair.

A report by former head teacher Ian Kershaw commissioned by Birmingham City Council found the council failed to spot concerns about some schools at the centre of the controversy and also and failed to take action in order to avoid being seen as "racist or Islamophobic".

Another report commissioned by the Department for Education and leaked to the Guardian found there was a "co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action carried out by a number of associated individuals to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into a few schools in Birmingham." This report, by Alan Clarke, also reported concerns about how pupils were being taught subjects such as evolution.

Accord, a coalition of religious groups, humanists, trade unions and human rights campaigners which campaigns to make admissions and recruitment policies in all state-funded schools free from discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, said both the reports found schools to have been providing pupils with a narrow curriculum, such as providing a blinkered view about the range of beliefs in society and denying them sex and relationships education.

Accord called for action over the council's finding that some schools provided pupils with Islamic assemblies and the department's recommendation for a review into the process by which schools are able to convert to academy status and become multi-academy trusts.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of Accord, said: "Accord has repeatedly warned of the dangers of persisting with a school system fragmented by religion and lacking in safeguards. The Birmingham schools issue highlights a fundamental inequity in the education system, with privileges for some groups to continue to act in narrow and exclusive ways, combined with unchecked freedoms for schools that can be misused

"As a society, we have failed so far to accommodate different religions and beliefs in education. The sooner our leaders have the courage to re-examine this settlement, the sooner we can move towards a system that is fair, sustainable and inclusive.

"The response to the Birmingham school issues must not be to single groups out, or to brush wider problems under the carpet."

He called upon the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, to commission a public inquiry into the role of religion and belief in schools, and for all parties to seek consensus.

"Rather than sowing the seeds for social division though schools, the state should be facilitating the growth of mutual understanding and respect. Future generations will not thank us for leaving them with one that is divisive."

Usama Hasan, writing in The Guardian, described how in his youth he was a member of a UK organisation, "The Movement to Reform the Muslim Youth" with an "extremist mindset that was characterised by dreams of global domination for Islam."

These would involve the re-establishment of a caliphate and the enforcing of a narrow, sectarian, xenophobic and puritanical theology.

This organisation went on to become Jimas, which now embraces an ecumenical and inclusive philosophy but also gave birth to a more reactionary offshoot that maintained the ultra-conservative Islamism and the original name of the organisation, and was led by Tahir Alam from Birmingham until its closure in 1995. Alam is allegedly now at the centre of the "Trojan horse" plot.

Hasan called for clarification over the place of religion in state schools. "For example, is it reasonable to expect a school with a majority Muslim population to hold Christian prayers during assembly, daily worship apparently being a legal requirement? Should it offer Islamic prayer instead or different assemblies for pupils of different religious and non-religious backgrounds?"

He also called for measures to ensure that the teaching of religion in schools is objective, balanced and non-discriminatory, with all school activities and practices inclusive and devoid of narrow religious or political influences.

Similar questions were raised by the atheist columnist Matt Ridley in The Times.

"We can hardly be shocked to find religious indoctrination going on in some schools if we encourage segregation on the basis of faith," he said. Since 2000 the proportion of secondary schools that are legally religious has increased by 20 per cent, and their freedom of action has greatly increased.

"The best way to prevent young girls in Birmingham being told that 'if a woman said no to sex with her husband then angels would punish her from dusk till dawn', as happened in Birmingham, is to leave religious practice - though not education about religion - out of school altogether."