Ten years ago, a brown envelope was anonymously delivered to Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council, the largest local council authority in Europe. The envelope contained an incomplete document, seemingly describing a plot to radicalise Muslim students in majority-Muslim schools in East Birmingham by infiltrating and taking over schools, and running them on strict Salafist principles. Nicknamed ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, this letter was leaked to the press, causing widespread outcry. Ten years on, this event has been largely forgotten by the wider public, but in certain circles is still fiercely contested and debated. Many questions are still to be answered.
It is important to note that while a few people still insist on its authenticity, the letter has been widely debunked. However, thanks to the findings of subsequent investigations, there is a widespread view that while the letter was falsified, it spoke to some genuine concerns.
While a few people still insist on its authenticity, the letter has been widely debunked. However, thanks to the findings of subsequent investigations, there is a widespread view that while the letter was falsified, it spoke to some genuine concerns.
As a result of the letter, Ofsted inspected 21 Birmingham schools at the centre of the claims about alleged infiltration. Six were labelled ‘inadequate’, some of which just a few years prior had been ‘outstanding’. Several others ‘required improvement’.
The issues with these schools included a failure of the staff to promote equal opportunity, failure to teach diversity and tolerance, failure to vet external speakers, and the unfair treatment of female employees. Descriptions of bullying of non-Muslim staff by governors and headteachers also existed, as did reports of widespread cultures of misogyny and homophobia. In one instance, during a sex education lesson, students were taught that a woman cannot refuse sex from her husband. A senior leader of Al Qaeda was praised in an assembly, while most of the schools assessed in Spring 2014 had failed to implement proper counter-extremism strategies to protect students. All these results were harshly at odds with British Education Policy.
The Clarke Report, written by a former counterterrorism chief, and the Kershaw Report, written by a former headteacher on behalf of the City Council, both found these issues to be broadly true. The Kershaw report even alleged that attempts to introduce Sharia Law had been undertaken in several of the schools. The letter outlined an approach of getting ‘hardline’ parents to put pressure on school leadership and make their lives difficult – and this has been recorded as having occurred, though whether the parents were put up to it is another question.
If you take away the letter, all this evidence seems circumstantial. Damning, concerning, and speaking to the emergence of a negative culture within the schools, but not linked to an organised plot in any way, as suggested by the letter. A Whatsapp chat of teachers from several schools called the ‘Park View Brotherhood’, named for the academy, existed. There were thousands of mundane messages, but also a few of concern. Within the chat, evidence was found of references of support for an “islamising agenda”, with one teacher referring to gay people as “satanic”. However, this group chat had no direct evidence of an organised plot – only that the changes to the school had strong support amongst some of the staff.
The Department for Education argued these cultures were allowed to grow without their knowledge as the Prevent Strategy, a counter-extremism policy introduced in 2011, had not been properly introduced in many of the schools. Allegations have been made that the DfE failed to act despite forewarning by educators, but those educators were responsible for implementing the Prevent strategy in their schools, so both can reasonably be seen as culpable. Prevent includes tactics such as public sector workers referring students ‘at risk of being drawn into extremism’ to government counter-extremism agencies.
Naturally, when the scandal broke, Prevent was reprioritised and is still referenced in Ofsted reports today, usually among references to the students’ understanding of the “risks associated with extremism.” A primary legacy of the scandal is the refocusing of Prevent and the assurance that schools will be properly vetted to stop perceived extremist threats from affecting any more schools.
A primary legacy of the scandal is the refocusing of Prevent and the assurance that schools will be properly vetted to stop perceived extremist threats from affecting any more schools.
Serial Podcast reignited discussions about the Scandal with their 2022 Podcast series, which while troubling for overlooking the problematic culture that had started to ingrain within the schools, does show an important view counter to that held by the government. In many ways, the mysterious letter, descriptive allegations and even the name ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ feel, as Serial suggest, like they belong more in a spy thriller than a genuine plot. If you have the time, it’s worth listening to this podcast, albeit with a degree of scepticism, to appreciate the alternate view presented by them.
Perhaps the most important change over the last ten years is in the perception of the city. Modern Birmingham is more often remembered for the Commonwealth Games or Peaky Blinders than for the allegations of extremism within its schools. That can only be a good thing for the city at large. Despite recent budgetary challenges in the city council, which have shaken confidence, Birmingham remains among the largest recipients of Foreign Investment in the UK. The City Centre is literally a building site, with massive projects to improve transport, housing and employment opportunities. The city is also one of the UK’s most diverse – in 2021 becoming the third UK city to be majority non-white. The scandal divided the city like a scar, with many Muslims believing the coverage and reaction was Islamophobic. Thankfully, over the last decade, that scar has begun to heal.
As for Trojan Horse, official disciplinary proceedings against accused staff were dropped in 2017, apart from one educator who received a classroom ban. The Government continues to push counter-extremism measures and Prevent remains a key pillar of UK Counter-terrorism policy. There remains however, many questions that we may never see answered.