Salma Yaqoob: Stigmatising Muslims won’t solve problems in Birmingham schools

Salma_YaqoobThe residents of Birmingham ought to be able to sleep more easily tonight. Peter Clarke’s 129-page report into the city’s schools found no evidence of plots to indoctrinate, groom or recruit school pupils to an agenda of radicalisation, violent extremism or terrorism. This is also the key finding of the reports commissioned by Birmingham city council and Ofsted.

Clarke, a former counter-terror police chief, found that a small number of governors in a small number of schools have sought to influence curriculums with bigoted views. He says: “There has been coordinated, deliberate and sustained action, carried out by a number of associated individuals, to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools. The effect has been to limit the life chances of the young people in their care and to render them more vulnerable to pernicious influences.”

Some of the views expressed are clearly unacceptable. There should be no place in our schools for the promotion of intolerance, division, sexism or homophobia. But these are problems that are capable of being solved without the inflammatory rhetoric most associated with the recently sacked Michael Gove. There is no natural spectrum that takes a person from observing a faith to extremism, to violent extremism.

Unfortunately, a great deal of damage has been done by politicians who whip up hostility towards migrants coming to this country or towards a Muslim community that is very much part of Britain. Viewing the problems of governance through the prism of “culture wars”, with Birmingham schools as the battlefield, was bound to leave many casualties. The reality on the ground is a huge increase in bullying – including in one case Muslim children having a dog set on them – and being taunted with accusations of learning to make bombs at school. The impact of this stigma on a whole generation of the city’s Muslim students when applying to universities and jobs cannot be overstated.

Attention has rightly been paid to social media exchanges in which individuals with educational responsibilities spout conspiracy theories and “anti-western, anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment”. Such comments, some of which end with an antisemitic punchline, must be challenged whenever they emerge. But it is dangerous politics that blurs the difference between this and the legitimate wave of protest at Israel’s crimes in Gaza. Thousands of Muslims and their fellow citizens have demonstrated together for peace in the Middle East and against Britain’s foreign policy. Their stand is utterly opposed to those marginal groups that abhor any such engagement in democratic politics and advocate violent, sectarian alternatives. Ironically, the government’s own Prevent policy emphasises the need to discuss differing viewpoints as an antidote to extremism.

The credibility of Ofsted has been shaken. Tim Brighouse, the former chief education officer of Birmingham, has criticised Ofsted for reporting uncorroborated accounts of past events. Furthermore, those accused were not questioned or asked to account for the allegations.

The pragmatic rather then ideological tone of the new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, is welcome, as is her encouragement of Muslims to take an active role as parents, governors and teachers, and her desire for our children to have the opportunity to “flourish in a modern, multicultural Britain”. She should also reintroduce the duty for schools to promote social cohesion.

The challenge now is to rebuild trust and repair damaged relationships. We need to ensure community representatives can work with Birmingham city council to formulate a vision of the principles and values of education in our city, and to chart a way forward that puts our children first.

Guardian, 22 July 2014