My first day at Park View School left me feeling like I’d found a second home. After teaching in two challenging London schools, Birmingham’s Park View was different: in 2010 the school throbbed to the rhythm of its then school motto: Respect, Opportunity, Achievement. The pupils were exceptionally well behaved and respectful â€“ an attitude fostered by their Muslim faith â€“ and keen to take advantage of the opportunities the school provided through trips and extracurricular activities. Exam results were well above the national average, despite a cohort who entered with attainment well below. These ingredients gave me the confidence that this was a place that shared my values and my belief that education was the key for disadvantaged, marginalised young people.
Four years later, the implication of theÂ “Trojan horse” sagaÂ for the pupils is clear to them, and to our school community: accommodating their faith in our non-denominational school â€“ allowing pupils to pray at lunchtime if they wish to and wear the hijab if they choose to, or shortening the school day during the Ramadan fast â€“ is not an attempt to meet their spiritual needs as one tool to raise their achievement. Rather, it is extremism.
Our inspections took place in the context of the publication of the hoax letter purporting to be a blueprint for an Islamic takeover of Birmingham’s schools. The lead inspector admitted as much â€“ “You should have been expecting us with all the press” â€“ leaving no possibility that they could be conducted in a fair and impartial manner.
Nevertheless, after Ofsted inspectors first visited Park View in early March, they left us with a list of mild recommendations for improvement. We had an action plan ready to be implemented the very next day. However, when the same inspectors returned 10 days later, they told us within hours that the school would be rated inadequate. Our strongly held belief is that the inspectors were ordered back into the school by somebody who felt that Park View had to be placed in special measures to enable the removal of Park View Educational Trust.
The inspectors’ conduct during that second visit left pupils and staff feeling like suspects in a criminal investigation. From female pupils asked whether they were forced to wear the hijab (despite girls in the same class clearly not doing so) to one staff member being asked “Are you homophobic?”, we were subjected to inappropriate and bizarre lines of questioning, designed to elicit the evidence required to damn us. This culminated on the second day in an inspector making a quip about there being “so many members of staff with beards” â€“ a clearly Islamophobic comment.
Over the past three months the pupils and parents of Alum Rock, the tight-knit, overwhelmingly Muslim community we serve, have become unwitting players in a vast game of academies, anti-extremism policy, Whitehall leaks and faith schools. Not a thought for our year-11s sitting crucial exams, or their parents. But then, these people are Muslims, and Islamophobia the last acceptable prejudice.
Throughout this crisis staff have maintained our focus on what has always been our priority: raising achievement so that pupils can take full advantage of the opportunities Britain and the wider world offer. That we respect and honour our pupils’ Muslim faith is a source of pride to me. That this should be used by some politicians and some in the media as a slur that we are inviting extremism should be a source of deep shame to them.
Lee Donaghy is assistant principal of Park View School â€“ The Academy of Mathematics & Science, in Birmingham