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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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