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‘The only real plot in Park View was to improve education for Muslim children. It was a huge success’

Lee Donaghy, assistant principal at Park View school in Birmingham, writes:  

The Trojan Horse – or Trojan Hoax – story went global last week when the International New York Times featured the story on its front page, in the wake of the murder of the Saudi student Nahid Almanea in Colchester. The sub-headline of the NYTi piece proclaimed that “allegations of ‘takeover’ by Muslims crumble amid integration debate”. Allegations of extremism at my school, Park View in Birmingham, similarly dissolved as I answered questions from the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee last week as part of its enquiry into extremism in schools, along with Mark Rogers, chief executive of Birmingham City Council (BCC) and councillor Brigid Jones, BCC cabinet member for education and children’s services. All three of us reassured the committee that we knew of no evidence suggesting there was extremism at the school. This testimony appears to have ended the debate after the committee’s chairman Keith Vaz told the Wellington Festival of Education on Saturday that he was not concerned about extremism at Park View.

However, buried within the New York Times article was a revealing quote that sums up one of the most under-discussed elements of the debacle. It helps to understand how the original faked letter has created a narrative that many have felt able to add to with overblown claims about takeovers and extremism. The quote also demonstrates how critics of efforts by Muslims to get involved in the running of schools in the heavily Muslim area of East Birmingham miss the point, maliciously or unwittingly, when they claim that there has been an attempt to impose a ‘hardline’ Islamic ethos on non-denominational state schools by a small clique of conservative ‘Salafist’ Muslims.

In the quote in question, Monzoor Hussain, Park View’s acting principal who has taught at the school since he joined as an NQT in 1997 when the school was originally in special measures, admitted that there has been a plot all along. A plot one with a simple aim: to raise the achievement of Muslim children in Birmingham from its historical disgracefully low level. For example, during the mid-1990s, less than 10 per cent of pupils would leave Park View with 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. In short: in the late-1990s, a marginalised community, tired of its young people failing and being failed at school, and convinced they had both the right and the capability to achieve as well as children anywhere, stopped placing its blind trust in the city’s educational establishment to provide a high-quality education and decided to make it happen themselves.

So it was that from 1997 a new governing body – led by the supposed Trojan Horse ringleader and former Park View pupil Tahir Alam – and a new leadership team set about transforming the school. The Park View story since is similar to that of many schools turned around from a low base: inspirational leadership, intelligent use of data, investment in teaching staff to enable smaller classes, excellent teaching and sheer hard work – teachers prepared to run revision classes before and after school, on Sundays and in the holidays.

What has been different about the Park View journey is the school’s demographic context. Some 98 per cent of its pupils are Muslim, drawn from a catchment area of just 360 metres, the smallest in Birmingham. Nevertheless, a crucial part of creating success at the school was to break down the artificial barrier that had been erected between the predominantly Muslim pupils’ home lives and their lives in school. The pupils’ Islamic way of life – their D?n – was not recognised or honoured in school. In fact, school staff from this time report that pupils would actively hide their faith and customs while in school. The subsequent granting of a part-designation allowing the school’s daily act of worship to be an Islamic one, combined with pupils being allowed to pray at lunchtime, the serving of halal food and girls being able to wear the hijab if they chose to, all served to ensure pupils felt respected, comfortable and valued. This has in no small part contributed to the school’s amazing recent academic performance.

The ‘plot’ has been a huge success at Park View itself. In 2013 75 per cent of our pupils achieved 5 A*-C grades, including English and mathematics, our fourth consecutive year at over 70 per cent. This is at a school where cohorts consistently enter with attainment well below the national average. In fact, the Department of Education’s ‘mini-league table’ comparison of similar schools reveals there is no school in England with a comparable intake that outperforms Park View

While acting as vindication for those who have worked so hard to improve Park View, the school’s success has also had two further ramifications. Firstly, it has acted as a source of frustration for parents and governors at nearby schools where Muslim pupils continue to achieve at unacceptably low levels. Secondly, it has created pressure on the heads of those schools as those same parents and governors ask, quite reasonably: “If Park View can do it, why can’t you?” In such a situation, some heads have unfortunately left their posts, unwilling or unable to do what the communities they serve have demanded: ensure education fulfills for their children the promise it ought to, and which it does for those lucky enough to attend Park View.

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