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Schools: Extremism and Intolerance

Volume 820: debated on Monday 28 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the reporting in “The Trojan Horse Affair” podcast, published by the New York Times on 4 February; and what steps they are taking to prevent extremism and intolerance from gaining a foothold in schools in England.

My Lords, we remain absolutely committed to keeping children safe from extremism. We provide online resources and fund networks of practitioners to support schools to promote shared values and build resilience to extremism. We also take action against those in the sector who express extremist views. The Government’s response at the time of “Trojan horse” rightly focused on whether the alleged events and behaviours actually happened. A number of independent reports confirmed that they did.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer and pay tribute to her great diligence in having subjected herself to listening to all eight hours of the New York Times podcast on this subject. I did not intend to subject her to a cruel and unusual punishment when I originally decided to ask the Question. Will she join me in paying tribute to the whistleblowers of all communities in Birmingham who played their part in bringing these most important allegations to public attention? Many of these people have been harassed by the New York Times in the years since the revelation of these allegations. Connected to that, will she give some sense to the House of the progress made on the independent report undertaken by Peter Clarke, former head of the counterterrorism command on the Trojan horse affair at the time, and the progress made on his 15 recommendations in this regard?

The Government recognise the very important contribution that whistleblowers make. We have had anonymous reporting lines since 2015 and established an online reporting system in 2021, which is available to those working in the sector and to the general public. I hope I can reassure my noble friend that we have made good progress on implementing Peter Clarke’s recommendations. To give the House some examples, we have strengthened the Ofsted inspection framework so that its inspectors are now required to assess how well schools protect pupils from the risks of extremism and radicalisation, and to promote fundamental British values. We have pursued action against those who may have breached teacher standards and taken action against those involved in the management of schools. We continue to assess whether other areas of the country could be similarly vulnerable, and we have a dedicated counterextremism function in the department to consider allegations.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that extremism arises from claims that the one God of us all has human prejudices and is more favourably disposed to our particular faith, as opposed to others’, no matter how we behave towards others? Does she further agree that the teaching of RE in schools should emphasise ethical commonalities, which are much greater than the smaller area of conflict-producing differences?

The noble Lord asks a rather profound first question, which I might need a bit more time to think about. On his second point, the principles that underpin fundamental British values, which are now taught in every school, include diversity, tolerance, mutual respect and the rule of law.

My Lords, the report by the independent review of the Prevent extremism strategy was due to be submitted to the Home Office in September. It was then put back to 31 December, and it still has not been published. Will the Government tell us whether they have received the report and whether they will commit to releasing the strategy before the summer Recess to ensure that the UK’s counterterrorism strategy is fit for purpose?

My understanding is that the independent review of Prevent is ongoing, and we will consider its findings in due course.

My Lords, at least 6,000 children are being educated in unregistered illegal schools where they are exposed to extremist, intolerant, homophobic and sexist literature. As the Government indicated, can the Minister confirm that legislation will be included in the May Queen’s Speech to increase powers for Ofsted to bring illegal schools into registration, and to introduce a register of home-educated children, so many of whom attend illegal schools? If not in May, then when?

The noble Baroness will understand that I cannot anticipate the Queen’s Speech, but I absolutely share her deep concern about the risks faced by children who are in unregistered schools. The Government have said that at the next legislative opportunity, we will seek to address some of those weaknesses. I can confirm that the Government are committed to a register for home-educated children.

My Lords, do the Government recall that one of the schools in the Trojan horse scandal is actually called the Al-Hijrah School, thus extolling not only Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to his takeover of Medina, but his massacre there of 600 Jews in one afternoon, after which his religion went on to conquer most of the known world. Does not the name say it all?

My Lords, the safety of children is paramount and whistleblowers often provide a very important service, but it is known that the then Secretary of State for Education had been informed that counterterrorism police had determined that the Trojan horse letter was bogus. None the less, he went ahead by citing the letter when instituting major reforms in Birmingham, through which teachers lost their jobs and schools were closed, and changes in national education policy resulted as well. Can the Minister say whether the Minister in question—who is now, of course, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up—has faced any consequences of those actions and whether the changes he instituted as a result will be revisited?

I do not think that the then Secretary of State or any subsequent Secretary of State should in any way apologise for their relentless focus on safeguarding children and the safety of those children. The alleged events and behaviours were confirmed in a number of independent reviews and an independent tribunal.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that what was subsequently uncovered by several Ofsted reports, two separate inquiries by the Department for Education, Birmingham council and multiple court judgments was that there was no organised plot but that a small cluster of Birmingham schools, including three run by an academy trust, suffered from a range of issues—poor governance, a lack of child protection safeguards and a failure of leadership? Does the Minister agree that what millions of Muslim families in this country want most of all is for their children to have a good education, to be integrated and not to suffer the consequences of this incident?

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that the vast majority of Muslim families in this country want exactly what she described. I have had the pleasure of visiting a number of excellent faith schools of all faiths, including Muslim schools, which comply with promoting fundamental British values, as all in your Lordships’ House would agree.

My Lords, will the Minister commend the people of Birmingham for their extraordinary efforts since 2014 on cohesion and attempting to learn lessons from this very complicated event, as we have heard in your Lordships’ House today? Will she particularly commend them for the United Nations rights reporting school award, which has been applied for every year and is now awarded to 51% of primary and secondary schools in Birmingham, compared with only 18% across the country? Will she commend these actions and others, and ask for them to be replicated around the country so that we might live as one people?

I thank the right revered Prelate for his question and for pointing out the success of integration in primary schools; I am happy to share in his welcome of that.

As the right reverend Prelate said, it is a complicated situation, but the podcast itself—the reporting as per the original Question—was at times quite worryingly skewed. Does my noble friend think that schools are doing enough to challenge extremism, or, as a result of this podcast, are they afraid of being labelled racist?

My noble friend is right that these are very sensitive issues, but challenging intolerant, racist or discriminatory views should be seen as part of a school’s wider anti-bullying and safeguarding duties. Actively promoting British values means that any opinions or behaviours that contradict them need to be challenged. I hope my noble friend will be reassured that a survey in 2021 showed that 87% of school leaders reported feeling confident that their school could facilitate conversations around extremism and radicalisation.