The UK government ignored repeated warnings that the “Trojan Horse” allegations of an extremist takeover of schools in Birmingham were “bogus” and it pressed ahead with divisive interventions, according to evidence revealed in a New York Times podcast.
In 2013, a strange letter appeared on a city councillor's desk in Birmingham, England, laying out an elaborate plot by extremists to infiltrate the city’s schools. The plot had a code name: Operation Trojan Horse.
The letter was later determined to be a hoax – but only after it caused a national panic. In the years that followed, the British government opened multiple investigations, hardened the country’s counterterrorism policy, revamped school curriculums and banned educators.
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A briefing by Birmingham city council in February 2014 for Michael Gove, then education secretary, said it had found “a serious credibility gap” regarding the anonymous letter, saying it contained “serious factual inaccuracies and, in a number of areas, contradictions” in allegations of an Islamist plot to subvert state schools in the city.
The evidence collected by Hamza Syed – a British-Pakistani Muslim who watched the scandal unfold in his hometown – and Brian Reed, two journalists working on the podcast, reignites the controversy surrounding the alleged plot, which triggered a series of raids, takeovers and turmoil in schools in central Birmingham with high proportions of Muslim pupils.
The eight-part podcast, The Trojan Horse Affair, said Gove was also told that Birmingham city council’s independent auditors had investigated allegations against schools named in the Trojan Horse letter. According to the briefing given to Gove, the audit “had come to a clear view there was no basis” for the allegations.
Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham local authority at the time, supplied the journalists with notes of his meeting with Gove on 12 February 2014, before the Trojan Horse letter had reached the national media. The notes show that Gove was told that the recommendation of the West Midlands police, including its counter-terrorism unit, was that the letter was “bogus”.
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However, the letter circulated within Whitehall became a flashpoint between Gove and Theresa May, the then home secretary, who privately berated Gove for failing to act. Shortly afterwards, the letter reached the national media, at a time when fears of British Muslims travelling to fight alongside Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were high.
Asked to respond, a government spokesperson said: “We make no apology for working to protect young people from all forms of harm. All children, from whatever background and no matter what challenges they face, deserve a safe environment in which they can learn.
“The Trojan Horse investigation led by Peter Clarke rightly focused on whether the events and behaviours that were alleged actually happened and the findings have subsequently been confirmed by a number of independent reports.”
The podcast’s journalists also obtained a copy of Birmingham city council’s audit report into events at Adderley primary school in Saltley, Birmingham, which is covered in great detail in the Trojan horse letter.
The podcast concludes without any firm evidence of the Trojan horse letter’s author or origin, but says the timing of the letter’s appearance coincides with the legal difficulties between the council and Adderley school – suggesting it may have been intended to influence the employment tribunal.