The Trojan Horse Affair

by Harry on February 23, 2022

I listened to the whole of the Trojan Horse Affair last week. I have some scattered thoughts below that, I imagine, include spoilers, so everything is below the fold. You should listen to the show, it is fantastic and if you are going to listen maybe you should wait to read this till later.

If you already had a belief about who wrote the letter (I didn’t), you probably still have that same belief, and hold it with roughly the same level of confidence as before. As I understand it people close to the action feel that they learned a lot, but not about who wrote the letter.

Here’s a contextual thing that I was surprised they didn’t mention. The whole affair erupted at a sensitive time for Michael Gove. His great achievement as Secretary of State was taking a reform that was working pretty well, and had (for good or ill) widespread popular support – the Academies – and pissing that support away by introducing another, more radical but obviously less wide-reaching, reform guaranteed to provoke massive opposition – the Free Schools. The Free Schools reform could have been designed to facilitate the emergence of schools run by extremists of all stripes – White Supremacists, fundamentalist Christians, Trotskyists, Islamists (whatever that means), Dungeon and Dragons obsessives. Indeed, when it was introduced I assumed that was part of the idea: anyone can set up a school (with the Secretary of State’s permission), so you’ll get some truly awful ones, and that’s the price you pay for lots of innovation and excellence. In fact it seems not to have worked that way – some free schools are clearly great, and the bad ones are run by dodgy chancers rather than extremists. None of the schools involved in the TH affair were free schools, but the DfE would have been very aware of the risks attached to that reform when dealing with the letter, and anxious about the various PR disasters they should (and must) have been anticipating.

The other thing that struck me most was the comparison between what the schools were accused of and my own experience of schooling just a couple of decades earlier. I attended only state schools as a kid (1967-81). All of them were secular, and two of them very progressive. But many of the practices that were regarded as problematic, were completely normal in the schools I attended. Sex-segregated PE. Sex-segregated sex education (though not much of it). Policing of girls’ attire. (Bizarrely, but not, I think, unusually, my first secondary school specified one colour of the girls’ knickers (guess what, navy blue). I don’t know how that was policed, outside of PE class. But, perhaps more eccentrically, it also prescribed boys’ sock colours (black, grey, yellow and red were all acceptable) and that was policed and enforced). Prayer and hymn singing were daily when I started each school, but twice-weekly by the time I left. (Because I was born in 1963, as I worked my way through each school it got bigger and bigger) Political and religious preaching from the Head. AN example that sticks in my head (you’ll see why). When the Labour government introduced the May Day bank holiday my headmaster gave us a lecture. It was disgusting, he said, that the government had introduced a celebration of the works of man, and contrasted this with the (nearby and, now I have visited it, I realise, utterly awe-inspiring) St. George’s Chapel, which celebrated the glory of God. (The peculiarity of the analogy is why it stuck in my head. To his credit the head once told a fantastic story about heaven and hell, and was complicit in one of the best practical jokes I’ve known, which I’ll tell you about another time).

In an article drawing lessons from the affair in 2014 my dadwrote:

Recently I watched a presentation at a Catholic secondary school staff training day of its faith mission. As I mentally substituted “Muslim” for “Catholic” and “Allah” for “God” with each slide that appeared on the screen, I had little doubt about what a furore such an amended set of slides would cause in our Islamophobic society. Would inspectors ask whether the children in Catholic schools are being prepared suitably for life in modern Britain?

As I said, all of my schools were non-religious schools. And in all of them we engaged frequently in Christian worship. My secondary schools both contained a number of Muslim kids. There was never any acknowledgement of Islam as a faith, or any of its traditions or celebrations. And we were made to sing hymns, frequently, with words that, if we were Muslim, would be regarded from outside as Jihadist. Here’s an excerpt from one:

“Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves. Britons never never never shall be slaves” (The implicature, not that I knew that word at the time, was that those in the places we ruled, would be. Of course, nobody actually meant that. Well, only a few of them did. But that’s the point).

And here’s another:

“Bring me my bow, of burning gold. Bring me my arrows of desire. Bring me my spear, oh clouds unfold, bring me my chariot of fire. I shall not cease from mental fight. Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand. Till we have built Jerusalem. In England’s green and pleasant land.”

That last, by the way, which is seared in my memory, was the one that Stephen M [1] and I, who believed (wrongly it turns out, but understandably) that we were the only socialists in the school, sang with energy and gusto, because we knew what it actually meant.

Sonia Sodha brings the Rotherham affair into her review of the podcast. Just to be clear, neither the forged letter, nor any of the audits, reports, or even newspaper reports, claims that pedophile rings were implicated in the affair. If she has evidence that the Rotherham affair is relevant presumably she has gone to the police, and we are in for another horrible treat. But she rightly says that one of the teachers involved was, eventually, convicted of sex crimes, having convinced a 14-year old girl she was his wife, and accuses the school he taught in of safeguarding failures.

I’ve been pretty breezy up to this point, but I’ll stop with that now. If Sodha thinks safeguarding is an issue particularly for schools with large Muslim populations she is almost certainly wrong. I am sure things have changed a lot since the late 1970s, and I am glad that they have. When I was at school I knew a 17 yr/old girl who was sleeping with a teacher. I knew a 16 yr/old girl who was sleeping with a teacher. I knew a 15 yr/old girl who was sleeping with a teacher. And, yes, immediately after finishing school I got to know a girl a couple of years younger than me who had been sleeping with her (secondary school) music teacher at 14. Everybody involved was white, nobody involved was Muslim.[2] Those are just people I knew (at two secondary schools, neither of them large). Is my experience unusual? If so its because of what I knew, not because of what happened.[3]

I am not minimizing the seriousness of the offense. My thought is that if you look sufficiently carefully at sufficiently many schools you will find some practices and activities that are wrong, and illegal. You could look randomly. But it would make more sense to investigate in a targeted manner. What seems strange is devoting resources to investigating schools which are successful and to which you have been directed by a letter which you know is a fake and gives you no grounds at all for suspecting anything is going wrong.

I haven’t mentioned homophobia. Homophobia was rife in all the schools I attended. If you’re anywhere close to my age, surely it was in yours too. Its hard to convey to young people just how pervasive and uncommented-on it was.[4] I still don’t know which of my friends were gay and lesbian in secondary school. Nobody was out. Nobody. And anyone could be a target, you didn’t have to be gay. You could, like me, be fat. Or, actually, though not like me, Muslim. It was foul. [The upside of being a victim of low-level homophobic bullying in my very early teens is that it gave me a lifelong disgust for homophobia. Would I have had that otherwise? Well, yes I think I would (as I got older I realised my mum had it). But not as soon, and maybe not as viscerally. My nephew, who is gay, was being bullied in secondary school a couple of years before the Trojan Horse Affair. By white kids who weren’t Muslims, who were not being stopped by white, non-Muslim, teachers]. [5]

A final thing. I’ve never met any of the characters mentioned in the show, but Sir Albert Bore and I have a mutual friend who admires him, so I have long thought well of him. His behavior in the podcast just seems bizarre, and the journalists are completely taken aback by it. When he made his volte face I was reminded of William Wragg’s blackmail claims last month. And when he was struggling to say what was concerning in the schools, and could only come up with sex-segregated PE lessons I thought of those TV shows in which a hostage, talking to someone on the phone, tries to communicate that something is wrong without alerting their captives.

[1] His sister was in the IMG at the time, so maybe some of you knew her. He now tells me he has become ‘disgracefully right-wing” in his old age, though, as Gina pointed out to me, nobody who is actually disgracefully right-wing calls themselves disgracefully right-wing.

[2] Chris Woodhead, the Ofsted chief so beloved of Tories and hardline Blairites (and, yes, who tried but amusingly failed, to undermine Birmingham’s schools as a way of derailing my dad’s career), had an affair with a 17-year old girl when he was a teacher.

[3] I was close to the 17 year old, indeed I was the only other person who knew about the relationship until after she left school. I asked her a while ago what she’d have done if I’d tried to stop her, instead of being supportive, and she said she’d have cut me off and stopped being friends, and is grateful I didn’t. She also said that she thinks it was a terrible thing for her, and that he was deeply wrong to have a relationship with her. That’s what I thought at the time.

[4] Its also hard to convey what the effect was of Tom Robinson’s song Glad to Be Gay. One day, when I had just turned 16, I heard one of my religious Tory friends quietly singing it to himself (not humming the tune: singing the words) as he wandered down the school corridor. It was a magical sound.

[5] That said, one teacher in my grammar school was almost-openly gay. Close enough to count, in those days. He ran the drama. I am sure he was a recipient of plenty of abuse, but he almost certainly knew that he was among the most loved and respected teachers in the school, and loved and respected by boys and girls alike. He was also the instigator of my favourite practical joke.



Sophie Jane 02.23.22 at 3:29 pm

100% agreed on the pervasive homophobia, and how difficult it is to explain to younger people now. Things really did get better, despite the Tories’ efforts. And it gives me hope now, to see how little traction even a sustained effort by the press to revive those attitudes is getting now, outside of social media.


Tim Worstall 02.24.22 at 10:31 am

“made to sing hymns” “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves.”

I’d hesitate to describe that as a hymn really. But then if that’s the sort of nitpick available then the rest of it must be pretty spot on. Which it largely is.

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