In Focus

A history of the Trojan Horse scandal

Hoax letter sparked investigation into alleged conspiracy to Islamise schools across UK

A hoax plan for Islamic hardliners to take over schools across the country is back in the headlines almost a decade after it first triggered panic and fury in the UK.

Dubbed the Trojan Horse affair, the scandal centred around claims that extremists were attempting to wrest control of Birmingham schools in an effort to introduce an “Islamist” or “Salafist” ethos into their teaching.

The scandal, which has long been recognised to have been overblown, has been re-examined by The New York Times in a podcast probing the origins of a letter that sparked the events. 

What is the Trojan Horse affair?

The scandal began in November 2013, when “Birmingham city council received a strange document in the post”, said The Guardian. The document was “a photocopy of a letter, which seemed to be part of a correspondence between Muslims conspiring to take over local schools and run them according to strict Islamic principles”.

It was accompanied by a note from an anonymous person claiming the letter had been found “in their boss’s office”, the paper added.

The letter purported to outline a five-stage strategy named “Operation Trojan Horse”, claiming that it had already achieved success and was responsible for “leadership changes at four schools”, the BBC reported at the time. 

The strategy was to “identify vulnerable schools where most of the pupils are Muslim” before identifying “a group of sympathetic parents to agitate for an Islamic agenda”, The Guardian said. 

After this, the instigators of the plan would “put in place governors who adhere to the same conservative Islamic beliefs” and “identify staff to disrupt the school from within by changing rules and undermining unsympathetic colleagues”. 

The plan would then be completed by running “anonymous letter and PR campaigns with the aim of forcing the headteacher to resign”, the paper reported. The letter claimed the strategy had been “tried and tested within Birmingham”. 

The Times splashed on the contents of the letter before it was then passed to the Department for Education (DfE) in December 2013. The DfE said it was looking into the claim that the alleged plot had targeted 12 schools. 

Government alarm bells

In 2014, Michael Gove, who at the time was education secretary in David Cameron’s government, ordered an inquiry and appointed a former national counter-terrorism chief, Peter Clarke, to look into the allegations.

The decision marked “an important shift” in the scandal, said Chris Allen, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Leicester, on The Conversation. “By bringing in a counter-terrorism chief, Gove was making it clear that this was not just seen as an educational issue – it was an investigation into potential extremism.”

The choice of Clarke was branded “desperately unfortunate” by West Midlands Police Chief Constable Chris Sims, according to the BBC. “Peter Clarke has many qualities but people will inevitably draw unwarranted conclusions from his former role as National Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism,” Sims warned. 

Ofsted carried out 21 emergency investigations into primary and secondary schools in Birmingham. Five schools were placed in special measures, including Park View, a secondary school that was rated as “outstanding” two years earlier under Gove’s toughened inspection framework. The school’s management teams were subsequently replaced.

Clarke’s investigation found “no evidence of ‘terrorism, radicalisation or violent extremism’ in the schools”, The Times said. But his report said there was “‘clear evidence’ of people in positions of influence who espouse, sympathise with or fail to challenge extremist views”. 

It warned that there had been “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools in the city”, the Daily Mail reported.

All a hoax?

By the time Clarke’s investigation had been completed and the report published, questions about the authenticity of the letter had been raised.

The Times said that the letter “contains errors that suggest it is a fake”. One such example, the paper said, was that the document “appears to show that the conspirators were working to remove a primary school headmistress who was actually dismissed 20 years ago”.

The Independent also warned that the letter was “widely regarded as a fake”. But Clarke said that his investigation was not tasked with exploring whether the letter was “genuine”, but whether “the events and behaviours described have actually happened”, the BBC reported.

“It quickly became apparent to me that although there are some factual inaccuracies in the letter, there is also a great deal that is true, some of which had not previously been in the public domain,” said Clarke’s report.

Professional misconduct charges were brought against 15 teachers and senior staff members who were accused of “attempting to apply undue religious influence within a small group of schools in Birmingham”, said The Guardian

But in every case bar one the charges were later “dismissed, overturned or dropped”. 

What was the impact?

Critics have said that the Trojan Horse scandal “had a disastrous impact on community relations in the UK” and “helped stoke Islamophobic sentiment to new heights”, according to Middle East Eye.

A study by researchers at Birmingham City University in 2014 found that 90% of Birmingham’s Muslims felt that “community cohesion” was “damaged by the way the affair was handled”, reported Channel 4 News.

The fallout from the scandal also contributed to the demotion of Michael Gove from education secretary to chief whip in July 2014, said the broadcaster.

At the time, the chair of Park View Educational Trust, Tahir Alam, said that Gove’s demotion provided “some reassurance that the Prime Minister has finally acknowledged the profound damage that has been caused by his divisive approach”, said Sky News.

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