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A conversation waiting to happen

20 June 2014

The 'Trojan horse' affair has exposed complex faultlines, says Richard Sudworth

Richard houghton

Inspected: pupils at Park View Academy, in Birmingham

Inspected: pupils at Park View Academy, in Birmingham

WHAT are we to make of the daily diet of revelation, claim, and counter-claim surrounding the "Trojan horse" saga in Birmingham? In one corner of the boxing ring, attention is focused on the supposed dangers of Islamic extremism - a plot to inveigle an Islamist agenda into the state school system. In the other corner, Islamophobia and reactionary, centralising education policies are among the objects under assault.

Caught in the middle of this most polarising of issues are schoolchildren and many committed teaching staff. I am a parish priest and chairman of governors of a church primary school in a Muslim-majority area of Birmingham: the continuing repercussions of the affair are of vital interest to a nest of relationships in our area.

It is widely acknowledged that the original "Trojan horse" letter is a hoax. The OFSTED reports seem to have exonerated the inspected schools from any link to jihadi activity, but there does seem to be evidence to support the grounds for "grave concern" that the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, referred to last week after the inspections (News, 13 June).

There are troubling accounts of bullying and intimidation, and of instances of conservative Islamic practices' becoming encouraged, or even institutionalised, within a number of non-faith state schools.

Sir Michael reported that governors in some of the inspected schools had sought to change policies and curriculum in the light of their own beliefs. The inspectors also found examples of family members' being appointed to unadvertised senior posts "in spite of poor references and against the wishes of the head teacher". Some 30 heads had reported concerns to their professional body, the National Association of HeadTeachers.

Yet the simple polarities suggested by much of the public debate clearly do not fit the realitiesthat are emerging. I have to be honest in admitting the diffidence with which I have approached articulating anything that could be quoted on this matter because of the complexity and nuance that underlies the genuine concerns that all parties have.

The three signposts below are provided as potential pointers to a response that unashamedly attempts to shape a Christian impulse in the midst of this messy episode.

We have all got dirty hands

CHRISTIANS, lest it be forgotten, are no strangers to "ulterior motives" and beliefs that, if imposed within schools (as some would hope), could put them at odds with wider, plural society. Whether they are issues of sexuality, creation, or employment equality, there are a number of touchstone beliefs to which the Church admits a measure of struggle and diversity.

It has to be noted that there continue to be a range of approaches about the appropriateness (or not) of evangelism in school settings. At the very least, a Christian engagement with this debate needs to be characterised by humility as our starting point.

We have witnessed a Department for Education that has politicised the OFSTED inspections. At grassroots, many school leaders feel that it has been manipulated to achieve an end of exposing Islamisation in schools. Local schools, both those that are and are not currently under scrutiny, are feeling vulnerable and exploited. The inspections themselves, whatever the rights and wrongs that are being investigated, have been deeply invasive, and have undermined trust in the due process of OFSTED inspection.

A number of school governors have been implicated in intimidating or systematically fostering a monolithic and conservative vision of Islam in secular schools. One of the overlooked casualties of the public institutionalisation of socially conservative Islam in secular schools is not just the religious plurality that should be available beyond Islam, but the diversity that exists within Islam itself.

It is worth emphasising that the attractiveness of church schools in many Muslim areas is the appeal of a faith-based institution that can hold genuine diversity, particularly to Muslims.

It is apparent that successive local and national governments have failed to tackle similar problems in the past, and have thus opened the door to a much more polemical and polarising process, which has been given the traction of political opportunism.

THE controversy has also revealed a culture of education fostered by successive governments, and colluded with by all our communities, that has reified parental choice, and put a premium on exam success as the paramount objective of education. We should not be surprised that some Muslims react to the poor exam results in some schools by co-ordinating governor-led interventions to replace head teachers who do not bring desired-for grades.

When exam results then improve, then to complain that there are other important factors vital tothe proper functioning of schoolsis, understandably, suggestive of double standards.

Much of the local discontent and alienation felt by Muslims in the wake of the recent inspections draws attention to the success that some of the condemned governing bodies had in raising exam achievement. That a number of head teachers with otherwise commendable professional records have been ousted through means that have included intimidation gets lost in the all-too-common use of exam success as political football.

We need to discuss what we believe are the values of education itself, and whether we can move beyond the impoverished vision of education as an instrument of economic achievement.

We need more religious literacy

THERE does at least seem to be the beginnings of a recognition that conservative religious beliefs are not necessarily the same as extremist or Islamist beliefs. Examples of conservative religious beliefs include the belief that music is haram (forbidden) as un-Islamic, or that the sexes should be segregated.

To associate such conservative beliefs with jihadist tendencies displays a woeful understanding of Islam, and merely serves to antagonise and alienate a community that should otherwise should be being brought into increasing conversation.

There are, however, certain conservative beliefs that cannot be given support within a "secular" education system. For example, I would argue that music lessons, including singing, must be available to all children, whatever the traditions of their families.

The lack of understanding of respective religious traditions and the fear of being racist have paralysed successive local and national governments from generating a conversation about which religious beliefs can legitimately be given space in a plural education system: this is the conversation still waiting to happen.

Whether religious conservatism is a breeding-ground for extremism is another debate altogether. The refusal, however, to separate these distinct issues is another example of the noise that is drowning out the necessarily more tortuous conversations that are needed across all our respective communities.

Christians should play a part in peace-building and in fostering the common good

THIS part will be credible only if practised with the aforementioned humility. To some extent, churches have already been through some of the pangs associated with adjusting to a plural society, such as increasing marginalisation in a "post-Christian" country. There are, though, still vestiges of the idea that just because someone is a Christian, then he or she will automatically be a better teacher.

By and large, however, lessons have been learned about the way in which the Christian faith can foster public life: it can be distinctive and credible, and yet open and inclusive. There is a measure of learning, sometimes through mistakes, which can be passed on to Islamic communities.

This learning can be relayed to local and national governments, too, who are in danger of swinging between two tendencies. One tendency problematises faith, and sees particular religious communities as challenges that need to be fixed. The other ignores faith altogether, seeing different communities in wholly cultural terms, and thus flattening any abrasion that they bring.

The former approach is a counsel of despair; the latter a counsel of denial. Christians ought to admit their place as part of a prophetic community that seeks the common good: this is an uneasy positioning that means that it behoves us to become empathetic listeners to Muslim neighbours, besides offering gentle challenge.

THERE are no simple solutions to the issues underlying the Trojan-horse controversy; this is no Hollywood Western, where the "good guys" can be identified by their white hats. We are all implicated and responsible to each other for truthful and self-critical speech.

Trust is in short supply, and there are elements of defensiveness and denial, even among Christians. There are also dangers that the polarising tone of the media firestorm will serve only to push communities apart, and leave children as the casualties of our religious and political posturing.

What is clear, however, is that the conversation that needs to happen to address what are obviously serious problems will require time and patience; it will not be realised by government legislation, or by political or religious grandstanding. It is a conversation for all of us, and, as a Christian constitutionally inclined towards hope, I believe itcan lead us to a place of more genuine unity and more vibrant public faith.

The Revd Dr Richard J. Sudworth is Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church, Sparkbrook, and Tutor in Anglican Theology at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham.

An earlier version of this article was published at www.presenceand-engagement.org.uk/content/presence-and-engagement-blog.

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