A dispute over how to combat the threat of homegrown Islamic extremism in British schools has provoked a political crisis, prompting the personal intervention of Prime Minister David Cameron, a public apology from one senior minister and the resignation of an adviser to another.
The rift followed allegations that Islamic fundamentalists had plotted to infiltrate and take over schools in Birmingham, home to a significant Muslim population.
The claims are as yet unproven, but they have divided ministers on whether they should concentrate on tracking suspects thought most likely to commit acts of terrorism or wage a cultural battle at the community level against fundamentalist theology.
The disagreement within the government underlines the sensitivity of the issue in a country in which Muslims radicalised in British cities have committed acts of terrorism.
Like many European nations, Britain has debated how to assimilate minorities while maintaining freedom of religion. In British schools, much discretion remains with head teachers.
Last year, the Birmingham City Council received an anonymous document outlining a plan called Operation Trojan Horse, in which fundamentalist parents would raise concerns about the staff and curriculum, particularly over issues like sex education, infiltrate the governing bodies of the school and then promote a leadership sympathetic to their views.
Several governmental bodies are looking into the case. In all, 21 schools were investigated over claims that male and female pupils were segregated, that sex education was banned and that, in one case, a cleric linked to al-Qaeda was praised in a school assembly.
While one leaked report from school inspectors appears to have flagged concerns, evidence of a conspiracy is scarce. According to news reports, the leaked report from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, or Ofsted, detailed several criticisms of one school, Park View.
The issue spilled over into Cameron’s Cabinet recently in a briefing published in The Times of London, which the Prime Minister’s office now acknowledges came from the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, suggesting that the department of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, had been too tolerant of efforts by hardliners to infiltrate the Birmingham schools for fear of being seen as Islamophobic.
The briefing suggested the Home Office was not confronting extremism until it developed into terrorism, and had failed to “drain the swamp” in which it bred. In response, the Home Office released a letter that May had written to Gove, accusing his department of inaction when related concerns about Birmingham schools were brought to his attention in 2010.
After days of sniping between Gove and May, Cameron stepped in. Gove apologised for briefing the newspaper, and one of May’s advisers resigned.
On Monday, Cameron authorised no-notice raids on schools, saying he did not want them to have “the opportunity to cover up activities which have no place in our society”.