In late 2013, a letter landed at the offices of Birmingham City Council that would end the careers of several educators across the city and drastically change Britain’s education and counter terrorism policy.
The anonymous letter described a plan of infiltration. It said that supporters of the plot would make the life of senior teachers in four Birmingham schools unbearable through abuse, concocting scandals about their teaching and complaining about liberal teachings of issues such as sex education. The threats said that these senior teachers would be forced out, and sympathetic educators would be installed in their place who would implement the teaching of Salafism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, in majority Muslim areas.
What happened next was curious. Birmingham City Council, along with the police and several newspapers, declared that the letter was very likely a fake with little credibility. Notes obtained by journalists show that a meeting between the council and the Department of Education (DoE) at the time concluded: “There is a serious credibility gap [with the letter]. The document contains serious factual inaccuracies and, in a number of areas, contradictions.”
It was not signed and written crudely. Many of the Birmingham schools named in the letter were high achieving schools and had received very positive reports from Ofsted despite their location in low-income areas.
But this didn’t stop a nationwide panic about the issue. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, ordered a review into these schools conducted by the former counter terrorism chief of Scotland Yard. He would later enforce the expansion of the teachings of ‘British Values’ to all schools.
Those alleged to have been involved in the plot were banned from teaching for life in many instances.
Furthermore, the DoE along with the Home Office, new ‘Prevent’ training was issued to educators to spot supposed signs of radicalisation and report them to relevant authorities.
Complaints were issued to Birmingham City Council and to the media that there was, indeed, a ‘Muslim sect’ running the city’s schools, putting pressure, amongst other things, to ban sex education and teaching of non-Muslim relations.
Over the years, as the Trojan Horse plot became accepted amongst many Britons, one student still felt deeply suspicious over the scandal. Hamza Syed, a former medical student about to train as a journalist, realised one question had not been asked by journalists nor seemingly investigated by the police: who wrote the letter?
Over the course of eight episodes, Syed, along with experienced American journalist Brian Reed, takes the listener through a gripping tale of mystery and intrigue. The two journalists attempt to speak to nearly everyone connected to the affair, from the educators named as extremists in the letter to council officials and everyone in between. It’s a journey that takes them across continents, with no element of the affair left untouched.
Contrary to some reviews of the podcast, Syed and Reed do not underplay aspects which present Muslim educators in an unfavourable light. Despite Syed’s clear scepticism about whether the plot took place, stemming from his experience as a Muslim who grew up in Birmingham, the podcast does not present a simplistic narrative about persecuted teachers who were undone by completely false allegations.
Their investigation uncovers serious claims about certain teachers and practices at these schools. In one instance, a teacher taught a group of boys that raping a woman was acceptable. In another, sexist messages were exchanged by male teachers in a group chat.
Their overriding conclusion, which is probably why this podcast has ruffled a few feathers, is that the Trojan Horse affair was a shocking example of Islamophobia in the UK. That the authorship of the letter, which has drastically altered the schools involved and nationwide education policy, has been poorly investigated by the police, the Department of Education and the media speaks volumes. A letter which had severe credibility issues, has become in Syed’s words, a ‘social fact’.
In attempting to discover the author of the infamous letter, The Trojan Horse Affair brings light to stories which had been buried amongst the government narrative of Islamic extremism.
Syed and Reed forensically connect the claims made in the letter to a dispute in one of the schools named, where there were serious allegations that a headteacher had forged the resignation letters of four teaching assistants. Birmingham City Council’s audit report of the situation is obtained despite the council’s severe efforts to prevent anyone seeing it.
The journalists also investigate the most alarmist complaints. These complaints submitted with the help of the Humanist Association by white teachers on behalf of their female Muslim colleagues – colleagues who did not share their alarm. Claims of Michael Gove’s Islamophobia are similarly scrutinised, questioning his agenda in promoting the seriousness of the plot.
Despite the silence, counterclaims and threats from numerous parties in the investigation, Syed and Reed display great determination to uncover the truth, no matter the costs to themselves. It is fascinating to see the journey both go on, with experienced journalist Reed initially challenging the more combative approach of Syed, before eventually understanding how his partner’s lived experience of Muslim discrimination fuels his determination.
The Trojan Horse Affair is an example of journalism at its best – fearless, forensic and challenging. While it does leave some questions unanswered, it is not due to a lack of trying from those involved. It is an example to us all about the good journalism can do in exposing wrongdoing and unreliable accounts.