Religion in schools: Exam question redaction and Operation Trojan Horse

The Sunday Times (£) is reporting that an alleged conspiracy to destabilize some state schools in England, enabling them to be taken over by fundamentalist Salafists, is being investigated by both council officials and the police.

The documents suggest that the strategy, called Operation Trojan Horse, should be used in Bradford and Manchester as well as Birmingham. “We have an obligation to our children to fulfil our roles and ensure these schools are run on Islamic principles,” they argue.

The papers say the first step is to identify poor-performing state schools in Muslim areas; then Salafist parents in each school are encouraged to complain that teachers are “corrupting children with sex education, teaching about homosexuals, making their children say Christian prayers and mixed swimming and sports”.

The next steps are to “parachute in” Muslim governors “to drip-feed our ideal for a Muslim school” and stir up staff to urge the council to investigate. The strategy stresses the importance of having an “English face among the staff group to make it more believable”.

Allegedly, the schools targeted included Regents Park, Adderley Primary School and Saltley School, all in Birmingham.

Assuming the allegations are accurate, this is a shockingly calculating and underhand attempt to subvert the system.

Update: The possibility that this is a false flag operation certainly shouldn’t be ruled out.

The other story is less dramatic, but still concerning because it appears to demonstrate that the government and exam boards are willing to collude with faith schools in order to accommodate religious sensitivities. The news that some questions had been redacted at the Yesodey Hatorah Jewish Voluntary Aided girls’ secondary school first broke last year. The National Secular Society is now reporting that this is being done with the apparent approval of the exam boards.  Here is a statement from the OCR board:

“In our deliberations we have reached the conclusion the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs. We believe we need to be mindful of the fact that if we do not come to an agreement with the centres we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”

This idea that schools may ‘need’ to censor exam questions in view of their pupils’ religious beliefs is not acceptable.  These questions were from science papers, but what would happen if they decided they ‘needed’ to redact questions about sexuality in humanities subjects?  To what lengths should exam boards go in order not to create a barrier to religious students accessing examinations?  There are real barriers to educational access caused by, for example, poverty or disability.  But here the barriers to access are being put up by religion, and connived in by the state.

In a letter to the NSS, education minister Elizabeth Truss, said: “I can confirm that, like all other maintained schools, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls High School will be required to teach the new science curriculum in full from its introduction in September 2014. The Department will be seeking appropriate assurance from the school that this will take place.”

Stephen Evans of the National Secular Society responds with appropriate scepticism to these assurances:

“Given the Government’s laissez-faireapproach to the redaction of evolution questions on exam papers we have no confidence that the DfE will ensure the new science curriculum will be taught in full by all schools.

Finally, a Muslim boys’ school which advertised for a science post indicating that women need not apply has withdrawn the advert.

The Education Department called Leicester council to remind them that schools must comply with equality law, and the advert was promptly withdrawn. Even so, the outsourcing company which published the ad insisted it was legal under the Equality Act, which allows employers to opt-out from sex discrimination rules in certain circumstances.

It does not seem likely that the opt-out clause would have had any force in this particular case