Our new columnist Simon Vessey aka The Exasperated Socialist tackles head on the curious tale of the two trojan horses.

The Trojan Horse Affair’s Hamza Syed and Brian Reed have spoken of their frustrations at the British media’s reaction to their popular expose. Unlike previous Guardian and BBC reporting they proved politicians knew that they were dealing with a hoax in 2014 before ordering investigations and far-reaching changes to education and counter terrorism policies amidst a frenzy of islamophobia which continues to profoundly impact Muslim communities to this day. The response, summarised here, has been silence punctuated by spiteful dismissal, with Hamza Syed smeared for good measure. Most journalists have done little more than retweet articles like Sonia Sodha’s sloppy and dishonest hit piece for the Guardian Media Group. Few critics appear to have even listened to the podcast they are dismissing.

This is undoubtedly a case of journalists and politicians doubling down on the failures and prejudices which played a foundational role in original scandal and its enduring, disastrous consequences. The entire affair stands in the starkest of contrasts with the treatment of “Britain’s strictest headteacher” Katharine Birbalsingh of the Michaela Free School. On the same day The Times published their 2 star review of the “bit of a trudge” Trojan Horse Affair they also published a flashy piece on Birbalsingh whose “zero-tolerance policies and liberal-baiting statements have made…a controversial figure”

A grovelling piece of client journalism from Nick Robinson late last year, when Birbalsingh was appointed “Social Mobility Chief”, sets out the narrative. A Conservative educator who was cruelly cancelled for speaking out at the 2010 Tory Party Conference before, as luck would have it, setting up her own free school the next year with close backing from the Tories including then Education Secretary Michael Gove and upcoming Tory MP Suella Braverman (then Fernandes) and transforming into a “darling of the right” who reminds Robinson of “Thatcher in her pomp”. The Michaela Free School finally opened in 2014, the same year that Birbalsingh’s Tory backers would so ruthlessly exploit the trojan horse hoax to attack Muslim educators turning around failing schools in Birmingham.

One of many of the coalition government’s new academies, the Michaela Free School would quickly achieve infamy with reports in 2016 of pupils being shamed with isolation and restricted lunches as punishment if their parents got into debt for school meals. It became known internationally as “Britain’s strictest school” where pupils were taught in an “atmosphere of rigid austerity” with detentions for tiny infractions and children moving between classes in strict silence. By the time Birbalsingh had parlayed her exam results success into her Social Mobility appointment, she was sufficiently emboldened to brag about the lack of provisions made for children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD and ADHD, which she refuses to recognise.

Alongside the many concerns about the way the pupils are treated obvious questions can be raised about the politics of headteacher Birbalsingh and other prominent figures associated with the school and precisely what their agenda is in education and beyond. As mentioned, Suella Braverman was involved with the school from inception. She has since risen from back bench MP to become Attorney General in Boris Johnson’s government, unhindered by the furore after Dawn Foster challenged her invocation of the antisemitic conspiracy of “cultural marxism” at the meeting of the right wing Bruges Group in 2019.  Braverman was both a director of the school from 2011-2019 and the chair of the board of governors from 2014-2018. Another prominent figure who was a teacher, director and governor at the school is Calvin Robinson who has used his stint in education to launch a far right political and media career. Having previously been a tory candidate in local elections he has gone on to work for GB News and the far right, Islamophobic Policy Exchange lobby group. His personal webpage proudly displays pictures with successive Tory Education Secretaries including Michael Gove.

Last year he was pictured lunching with fellow UK right wing agitators Darren Grimes and Laurence Fox along with infamous Nazi Andy Ngo. Ngo has a long track record of working with the far right, his followers have committed several mass shootings and targeted anti-fascists, and he has written Islamophobic myths about the UK for Rupert Murdoch. No surprise he should be found rubbing shoulders with the great and good of British journalism and politics – he was at last year’s Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards

There is no danger of Prevent knocking at Birbalsingh’s door nor of any ban from teaching owing to her associations and practises. She is very much the model head for the Conservatives and the far right and has been championed by Gove and Murdoch’s Times outlets every step of the way down this career path. They have both pushed Birbalsingh’s career much as they did the Trojan Horse hoax. It was The Times, Gove’s former employer from his time in journalism, who published the leaked hoax letter which was the catalyst for the scandal exploding back in 2014. Later that year they tried to expand the scandal from Birmingham to Tower Hamlets calling it “Trojan Horse 2”. Just one of many Islamophobic campaigns those papers have run such as the discredited “grooming gangs” moral panic or their coverage of a Christian child with Muslim foster carers.

The Times have connections via journalists and stories with far-right fronts like The Gatestone Institute and Migration Watch. Gove also links The Times and Conservatives to the Henry Jackson Society, another far right lobby group that has received government funding and made donations to Gove and Priti Patel. In turn it is linked to other community organisations and front groups run by fascists and peddling islamophobia like MAAS (Muslims against Antisemitism). Gove would go on to be accused repeatedly by Baroness Warsi of being an “extremist” Islamophobe who had radicalised David Cameron. Though it has nearly been 5 years since Warsi first spoke out against Gove’s “crazy” anti-Muslim policies he has managed to hold a string of Ministerial roles, contest 2 general elections and try to become Tory leader and PM without a single journalist asking him about them. Likewise, he has faced little pressure from British journalism in the aftermath of these latest Trojan Horse hoax revelations despite them being especially damning for him.

Academy and Free Schools like Michela are a US import based on Charter schools. Their implementation here is designed to achieve new tiered education model, enforce very strict and reductive approaches to children whilst creating lucrative opportunities for plunder. The advance of academy chains has seen education commodified at the expense of children with rising issues around exclusions and off-rolling of SEND children. Alongside this template opportunistic Conservatives like Michael Gove have dragged education into their “culture war” exploiting what they knew to be a hoax in the Trojan Horse letter to unleash a wave of islamophobia whilst at the same time promoting of “darlings of the right” like Birbalsingh as model teachers. Gove is very much at the nexus of the far-right agenda in this country and his stint as Education Secretary serves as one example of the kind of lasting influence that can have and the continuing danger he represents.

Simon Vessey: exasperated socialist 

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