Inside Park View academy: Religion row school ‘is victim of its success’
Hasan Sajad is a year-11 student at Park View academy in Birmingham. He should be thinking about sitting his GCSEs shortly, but his school’s emergence at the centre of a political furore about alleged Islamist takeovers has given him something else to worry about: his future.
“There’s a chance we may be sidelined due to what’s come up in the news. People may say, oh they are from Park View, they’ve been part of the whole Trojan horse scandal, so let’s not give them a place in a sixth form or university later on. That could be a possibility,” Sajad said.
A few months ago that would not have been a concern for Sajad or his classmates. Park View was warmly praised by Ofsted’s head, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and its inspectors for achieving academic results well above the national average, all the more remarkable given its location in Alum Rock, a deprived mini-suburb of Birmingham and its high proportion – 70% – of pupils eligible for free school meals.
But that changed in February with the emergence of the now-infamous Trojan horse document alleging a citywide Islamist plot to hijack stateschools in the area, catapulting it into the media glare. Claims of outside meddling, indoctrination and bullying of non-Muslim staff have engulfed it and other schools in Birmingham, and different parts of the country including Bradford and Manchester.
A new report from Ofsted, ordered by the education secretary, Michael Gove, is expected to severely downgrade its rating and criticise the school for entangling elements of religion with education.
Kabir Khan, a bright year-10 pupil who wants to study medicine, has no doubts about the explanation for why Park View has found itself in the eye of the storm. “Because it’s an outstanding school in Alum Rock,” he says bluntly.
Halima Sahdia, a year-11 pupil at the school, explains Khan’s point: “Because Park View is an outstanding school, and the area’s really deprived, people think, how can it become an outstanding school? I think that’s what’s really surprised many people – and maybe that’s one of the main causes.”
The Guardian was allowed access to Park View to interview governors, staff, and pupils past and present, and air the allegations against it. There was no immediate evidence of undue emphasis on religion, aside from what might be expected in a school where the pupils are 98% Muslim, drawn from a catchment area where the population has a similar makeup.
The only obvious formal segregation occurred during PE, with the girls out playing cricket on the inner-city school’s tiny sports ground while the boys sat inside taking another class. In short, on the evidence of a single day and chaperoned by school officials, it looked and felt much like any other state school in England or Wales.
None of the staff or students said they believed there was any substance to the allegations of extremist Islam within the school. Sajad said his parents were shocked when they first heard of the claims. “They don’t believe any of this stuff takes places or that any of it’s true,” he said. The school’s excellent results mean that it was oversubscribed, and despite the unwanted attention the waiting list remains long.
But applications for teaching jobs at the school have dried up, and inside Park View staff say they feel the strange effect of seeing your workplace plastered across the front pages.
“It’s more than strange, it’s extremely stressful for everybody,” said John Brockley, the head of maths, who has taught at the school for 26 years, a veteran of the school staff from days when Park View was among the worst schools in Birmingham and the proportion of pupils passing GCSEs was in the single figures, including a year when just one pupil out of 90 passed GCSE maths.
“The year-11 students in particular are feeling the stress,” Brockley says. “They’ve got exam pressures and they’ve got all this nonsense, all this trial by the media. But the amazing thing is that it’s not just us, there’s all the other schools as well, so you’re talking about literally hundreds of teachers and support staff who are stressed in Birmingham. It’s a crazy situation.”
Nasreen Qamar, the acting head of English, said pupils have been distracted by the bombardment of negative headlines. “It’s been even more stressful for staff, in getting the kids through their exams and encouraging them that it’s not going to affect their future.”
Brockley and Qamar were both questioned by Ofsted and Department for Education staff during the three inspections the school has been through since the allegations emerged. A repeated question to staff was “are you homophobic?” – one of the allegations made against the school. Qamar said the claim was refuted by the school’s adherence to the national curriculum. “We have students in this school, in my class, who have written as part of coursework about homosexuals having equal rights. We have children openly discussing homosexuality. We teach a broad range of topics. The suggestion the curriculum is narrow and we only focus on Islam is false. There’s no narrow agenda here.”
Tahir Alam, the school’s chair of governors, is one of those named in the Trojan horse document, and to some is the figure behind whatever truth there might be to the allegations.
Alam, though, is adamant that Park View has nothing to hide or fear from its desire to connect the school to the local community. “Everything that we do is within the legal parameters for community schools,” says Alam of the role of religion at Park View. “What are those things? We do an act of worship that is appropriate to the family background of the children, which is a statutory act of worship by law.
“The second one that we do, if pupils want to pray, we make accommodation for them within the school. About five to 10% of our children actually pray during the day, during one of the prayers anyway. If they are fasting during Ramadan, as an example, then we try to make their life as easy as we can. We provide halal meals, of course, as a dietary requirement.”
Alam insists religious observance at Park View is no more compulsory than any other state school, including its dress code: “Nobody is made to do any act of religion that they don’t want to do. If they say, I don’t want to do that, then the school doesn’t make them.”
Alam draws a distinction between Park View and an Islamic faith school: “What we do, every single act is purely optional. All we are doing is simply saying, you can do it, and we’ll make an accommodation for you. So we are kind of friendly, is the best way of describing it.”
He denies the various allegations that have appeared in the media. He ticks them off one by one. “To be honest with you, they are all rubbish, it’s comical – it’s serious but it’s comical at the same time. Some of the allegations are so ludicrous – £70,000 worth of speakers were bought for prayers, for example, these are the allegations and they have been printed everywhere. … [and] that [militant Anwar] al-Awlaki was praised in assemblies. So when was that done, who did it? Nobody knows, just anonymous comments.”
So that never happened? “Of course it didn’t, none of these things happened.” said Alam.
The other allegation – that Alam and Park View’s governing trust has taken over nearby schools – is also dismissed by Alam, who says that it was the DfE that asked Park View to take over two struggling schools: Golden Hillock secondary and Nansen primary, which is right next door. And of his alleged determination to staff the schools with Muslims, Alam says that of the three headteachers he has been involved in appointing during his 17 years as chair of governors, none has been a Muslim, and the current head is a Sikh.
Lee Donaghy, Park View’s assistant principal, says that the school is not perfect and that he expects Ofsted to be able to find things to justify its grim prognosis: “Their selective search and use of evidence was clear to us. They picked on small things and things that would fit a narrative, and ignored things that would go against that narrative.”
Donaghy also echoes the students’ view that the Park View is a victim of its success. “I think there’s a toxic brew to all of this. It’s a school in a very deprived area with a very tough intake that gets incredible results. So straight away people are very suspicious about how that is achieved.”
Nobody cared about the school when it gave pupils a sub-standard education, Donaghy argues. “At the essence it’s been a community saying, ‘we’re not going to put up with our kids getting a second-rate education any more’.
“Some people are resentful of us because our results are really good, and theirs aren’t. Parents say to them, ‘why can’t you be more like Park View?’ So this idea there’s a conspiracy which is affecting other schools – yes, there are parents out there saying they’d like their school to be more like Park View, because it gets excellent results.
Donaghy added: “Part of us getting excellent results has been about reflecting the wishes and needs of the community in the school. We would not have got those results without doing those things that mean that parents trust us and that kids are comfortable here.”