It was described as the “incubator” for many of the problems associated with the alleged Trojan Horse plot. Now, the academy at the centre of the scandal around radicalisation in schools has said that it holds the answers to tackling the problem.
Rockwood Academy, formerly Park View Academy, the secondary school in Alum Rock – a depressed suburb of east Birmingham – was at the heart of an apparent conspiracy by hardline Islamists to infiltrate 21 schools in the West Midlands.
The so-called Trojan Horse saga plunged Park View and two schools in the same trust – Nansen Primary, and secondary Golden Hillock School – into the media spotlight in 2014 after they were accused of promoting “extremist” Islamic views to pupils.
Two years on, Adrian Packer, chief executive of the Core Education Trust – which took over Park View and Nansen – believes his team now has the “solutions” to the sensitive issue of working in schools located in predominantly Muslim communities.
“We’re the answer,” he told TES. “What we have is a whole bunch of answers, solutions and experiences that will help in other situations.”
The central thrust of its approach is to inculcate “authentic” British values by focusing on promoting sports and the arts, rather than giving students vague examples of “Britishness” and “pinning up pictures of the Queen”.
“The school was very introspective,” Mr Packer recalled. “The previous leaders justified this introspection by saying they got results, but it was at the expense of a broad and varied curriculum.”
Park View had been judged “outstanding” by Ofsted just two years prior to the Trojan Horse scandal breaking. In the aftermath, inspectors rushed in and immediately downgraded the school and its feeder primary, Nansen, saying that they required special measures. It is a mark of how far the schools have come since 2014 that both Rockwood and Nansen were judged to be “good” by inspectors in April.
Core has now been given the green light to sponsor more schools and is aiming to take on five more by 2020.
Becoming a caricature
The situation could not be further from two years ago when, according to Mr Packer, the school had become “caricatured” by the media. TV crews regularly used the schools as a backdrop when recording news items on terrorism, Mr Packer said. “We had one newspaper superimposing terrorists onto a picture of our playground,” he added.
Ofsted’s decision to downgrade the school in 2014 raised eyebrows and, in some minds, questions over the watchdog’s independence and reliability as an inspectorate. But both Mr Packer and Rockwood’s new principal, Fuzel Choudhury, who took over nine months ago, are adamant that the school’s previous top rating had been inflated.
“It had been given an ‘outstanding’ rating but there is no way this school was ‘outstanding’,” Mr Packer said. “I have only ever worked in ‘outstanding’ schools with ‘outstanding’ leaders and this was way off.
“I don’t think there is anyone who would go on record and stand by that judgement – well, maybe the previous leaders would.”
Choudhury agreed. “Park View was never ‘outstanding’,” he said. “This school was not in special measures because of ‘it’ – Trojan Horse – by itself. It was in special measures because of the quality of teaching and learning; the expectations were at an all-time low.”
However, that same report placing the school into special measures actually rated the school’s quality of teaching as “good”.
The murky picture of Park View’s true performance is symbolic of the entire Trojan Horse affair that engulfed so many schools in and around Birmingham. The anonymous letter that sparked the investigations by exposing Islamist plans to infiltrate schools – which some have claimed was a hoax – lifted the curtain on the myriad challenges that Mr Packer said schools face when serving a predominantly minority-ethnic community in Britain.
While an investigation by Peter Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief of the Metropolitan Police, failed to uncover evidence of extremism, it did reveal evidence of a “sustained, coordinated agenda to impose segregationist attitudes and practices of a hardline, politicised strain of Sunni Islam” in a number of schools.
Mr Packer said that journalists have come and gone trying to “get underneath and understand [Trojan Horse]”.
“But you can’t, I am afraid,” he said. “I had heard a lot about Trojan Horse before coming here, but what exactly is Trojan Horse? I still can’t answer that today. We’re talking about bigger societal issues.”
The focus of turning the schools around, he said, was not so much on dealing with intolerant strands of Islamism, but focusing on the wider, perhaps more challenging, issue of social integration.
Finding ‘authentic’ values
“Some of the things in this school, you see all over the country – special measures are special measures. But there are bigger issues here – community cohesion, integration, major societal issues,” he said. “You have a community here where kids are going to school in a majority context and going out into a minority one. That is a real change for them in terms of their day-to-day life. Our job is to ensure that when they move from a majority to minority context, that they can be contributors to society and be positive citizens.”
This can only be done by focusing on “authentic” British values, Mr Packer said – British culture, as told through arts and sport (see box, left), and not through the monarchy.
Such lessons need to be shared as a priority, according to Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. In a letter to former education secretary Nicky Morgan last month, he warned that the spectre of Trojan Horse still hung over schools in the region.
Too many heads are confronted by “overt intimidation” from certain sectors of their communities, Sir Michael said, while a “culture of fear” still exists in some schools.
When asked about Sir Michael’s comments, Mr Packer said his school was moving in the “right direction”.
“We don’t romanticise this job – it’s tough,” he said. “Sir Michael Wilshaw has made a judgement but has seen we are changing and have been rated ‘good’. And yes, we face a dwindling resistance to that change. Our job now is to guarantee that what happened here never happens again.”
Switching on to ‘being British’
Adrian Packer believes that the best way to foster British values in children is through arts, culture and sport.
Mr Packer encourages his schools to “look out” – to look beyond their immediate communities and to engage with British culture.
Rockwood and Nansen are among the few state schools in the country to be official Lawn Tennis Association Schools, while students often go on theatre trips and other cultural outings.
“British culture is best told through the arts and sport,” Mr Packer says. “Through that, you are able to give students opportunities to look outwards and see the world in a more authentic way. It’s not about standing up and talking about the Queen or the prime minister, because what the children told us was that if you go on about ‘being British’, we’re going to feel less British.”
Rockwood has recently launched two initiatives to combat radicalisation. The first is a new curriculum called #Extre(me), which is designed to protect students from online grooming. Also introduced was a Combined Cadet Force, in association with the British military, which the trust hopes will instil pride in being a citizen of the UK.