A secret document purporting to expose an undercover Muslim conspiracy to take over schools in Birmingham hit national news recently, prompting journalists to fall over themselves heralding a sinister 'Islamic plot', while eliciting both public statements from the Prime Minister and snap Ofsted inspections for the places of learning allegedly targeted by the conspirators.
From the outset I would like to be clear about my interest in the subject. I grew up in Birmingham, in the areas where some of these schools are based. I know Park View, one of the places mentioned, very well. I used to play football there once a week in the evenings as a teenager, and trained on the astro turf on Friday nights with Alum Rock FC. I still have family and friends playing for the local side. I also remember the reputation of Park View. It was the last place you wanted to go to school, it was the last place most parents in the area wanted to send their children and those of my friends were educated there would admit it with embarrassment.
The school since then has completely turned around. It is regarded as outstanding. There is a waiting list to get into the school. But now this so-called plot has overshadowed the school's achievements and the hard work of those that have helped it progress. Its success is particularly worthy of celebration due to the fact that it has now become a place where people from poorer backgrounds can develop a brighter future; 72% of the school children are on free school meals. Journalists usually fail to mention this and the fact that the school is in one of the most economically deprived areas of Birmingham.
Rather, the emphasis is fixed around religion and culture. The narrative attached to this story fits neatly into the anti-Muslim rhetoric that we have seen increasing over the years. For those that buy into Islamophobic paradigms this is a gift: what more could any self-respected bigot want as vindication for their beliefs than the exposure of a clandestine plot by Muslim hardliners to oust non-Muslim heads and staff and replace them with Muslim fundamentalists? A plot to segregate girls from boys. Girls forced to wear headscarves - it has all the makings of a racist melodrama and an EDL wet dream.
There's only one problem: none of it is true.
The letter that stirred up the recent hysteria about the school is an unattributed, undated text, unsigned by anyone- a fact that seems to have been completely overlooked by those journalists braying for the blood of Muslims of late.
How many Muslims do you need for a plot? Two? Three? Or more? What constitutes a plot? There is a very sinister Islamophobic narrative taking place here, one that, for all intents and purposes, accuses an entire minority community of surreptitiously plotting away to infiltrate the country's institutions and changing its very values, or so we are led to believe. Would journalists ever call something a 'Jewish plot' or 'Christian plot'? Should we now re-visit the Gunpowder plot and rename it the 'Roman-Catholic plot'? Why is the religion of the governors and students been mentioned as if it were any worthier of emphasis than Guy Fawkes' faith? Why does this become the central issue?
I've spoken to teachers at the school, as well as parents and governors. There is no forced segregation. Children sit where they want and- shock! Horror!- teenage boys want to sit with their male friends and girls sit with their female friends. The issue appears to be gaining so much focus simply because the children are Muslim. Arabic is taught in school, for a simple reason: it's actually the preferred option by students.
Regarding the claims that a teacher praised the extremist preacher Anwar Awlaki in a school assembly- I have yet to find any evidence of this. We do not know when this has supposedly taken place and which staff member said it. Yet it has been broadly taken as gospel truth and 'evidence' of the claims of pro-terrorist Muslim scheming.
Let us look at a few facts that contradict the dominant narrative at hand about Park View: the executive principle is not a Muslim, the assistant principle is not Muslim but the acting principle is a Muslim. Surely if there was a 'plot' taking place all the heads of the school would be Muslim, instead the executive principle is a white non-Muslim woman. She must be a crypto-Muslim agent no doubt.
In the last 17 years all three permanent appointments at the school for head teacher have been non-Muslims. If this plot started 20 years ago as it is claimed, then where are the Muslim heads?
Tahir Alam, chair of governors at Park View, is named in the letter and 'plot'. Mr Alam for years has tried to get Muslim parents involved in the education of their children. He has made no secret about this, he has held public events and told parents the importance of participation. The Muslim community often gets criticised for not engaging but when they do they are accused of infiltration, plots and extremism.
According to one BBC report a former teacher, Mike White, said the plot started 20 years ago. White was removed for gross misconduct and he took the school to a tribunal but lost. What the BBC fails to mention is that when Mr White was head of maths only one in 120 students got a C grade. Now, 99 out of 120 students get a C+ grade.
BBC's Radio 4 Today programme did a report on the school. A journalist accosted students and asked them if they were forced to wear the hijab- you know, because this school is run by the Taliban, where every woman must cover themselves in order to appease their fastidious schoolmasters. This biased and loaded piece of so-called journalism also claimed that there were no pictures of girls and boys together in the school. The reporter was either blind or deliberately neglected to mention the fact that the school demonstrably displays pictures of boys and girls together and that several people have refuted her claim- but why let facts get in the way when you are on a mission to prove that there is a plot, however low your journalistic standards have to sink in order to do this?
We all know from former Daily Star reporter, Richard Peppiatt, how the drive for anti-Muslim stories in the press can lead to a skewing of facts or just simply making things up.
I do not have much hope in the Ofsted report either. I have already spoken to parents and was shocked by the questions that Ofsted and Department of Education investigators have been asking students and teachers. "Are you forced to wear that scarf," they asked one girl who was wearing a long skirt, "Isn't it very difficult for you to move around?". One teacher was asked, "Are you homophobic?", because all Muslims must be homophobic, right?
There is extremism is schools, I agree and accept this. Extremism exists in schools were parents pay tens of thousands a year to have their boys segregated from girls. Where an ideology of superiority is taught, where young rich boys are taught that it is their God given right to rule over the commoners. Where a skewed version of history is taught, colonialism was a good thing and the empire brought good to the world and civilized the savages. In these schools boys are forced to learn Latin, not Arabic. But we won't see or hear politicians talking of that kind of extremism or segregation, we won't see journalists peering through windows there, because it is not Muslims involved. Extremism of the rich is applauded, not questioned.
I would like to thank the teachers, governors and staff at Park View school. I would like to thank them for giving hope to so many children from a deprived area, an area I grew up in. I wish I had had this hope as a youngster. I would like to thank them for making the children believe that they can achieve and making them feel comfortable as themselves. I would like to thank them for going to such a school and not leaving it to fail, when so many others are willing to spend a short stint at an inner-city school and then move on once they have the 'diversity' and 'difficult' school on their CV's. I would like to thank them for caring about children that once no one cared about- because no one thought we were capable of achieving anything.
Theirs is a story that should have made the news for this reason, long before they were smeared by a press addicted to sensationalist, dog-whistle journalism- which a growing market of uncritical bigots will happily pay to read.