The head of West Midlands police has criticised the “desperately unfortunate” decision by Education Secretary Michael Gove to appoint a former head of anti-terrorism to investigate an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to take over schools in Birmingham.
Chief Constable Chris Sims warned that the appointment of Peter Clarke, the former head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, sent the wrong message about an investigation that followed claims religious hardliners had threatened to overthrow secular heads.
“This is a desperately unfortunate appointment. Peter Clarke has many qualities but people will inevitably draw unwarranted conclusions from his former role as national coordinator for counter terrorism,” he said.
“This is about governance of schools, it’s about social cohesion and the implications for schools operating in an area that’s predominantly from one ethnicity,” the chief constable told The Independent. “I want to be absolutely clear… that this scrutiny hasn’t become a counter-terrorism investigation.”
Mr Sims’ comments followed intervention by Mr Gove in the investigation of Operation Trojan Horse – a leaked and possibly fake anonymous letter – claiming to be sent between fundamentalists seeking to persuade Salafi parents to force out senior staff in Birmingham and replace them with those sympathetic to their Islamic beliefs.
Among the claims by whistle-blowers are that boys and girls are made to sit in segregated classrooms whilst sex education is banned. The city council has received more than 200 complaints and 25 schools are now under investigation in the city.
The decision to bring in Mr Clarke is seen as a snub to the city authorities which this week announced a series of measures to get to the bottom of the allegations. Council leader Sir Alfred Bore said it was “frustrating in the extreme” that it was investigating a two-tier system with schools under local authority control and academies ultimately governed from Whitehall where it had few powers to intervene. He said that Mr Clarke’s appointment was a “missed opportunity” to help the coordinated approach.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said that Mr Clarke would work closely with Birmingham City council to analyse “evidence of extremist infiltration” and had the powers to go into local authority schools and academies. The Education Secretary ordered inspectors from Ofsted to go into 15 schools in the immediate aftermath of the reports.
He said: “These allegations need either to be substantiated and firm action taken, or to be shown to be baseless. We cannot allow uncertainty for parents or pupils to persist.”
Mr Gove was accused of selecting Mr Clarke to prevent embarrassment about his own education policies. “This appointment gives the clear impression that the issues around Trojan Horse are predominantly around counter-terrorism issues,” said the Labour police and crime commissioner, Bob Jones.
“My main concern is that the Secretary of State is attempting to divert attention away from the governance and diversity issues that might be embarrassing to his policies and approach to school governance. This would be at the expense of sending a completely inappropriate message to our local community.”
West Midlands police has helped unravel a series of high-profile terrorist plots in recent years, including an operation to explode eight rucksack bombs in a spectacular designed to rival the 2005 attacks on the London transport system. It emerged during the investigation that a group of young men were sent to Pakistan for terror training before family pressure forced them to return to Britain, although nobody from the community told police about the plots.
Mr Sims however highlighted the role in the community in bringing to justice a right-wing Ukrainian student, Pavlo Lapshyn, who stabbed an elderly man on his way home from a mosque in a racist attack. Laphsyn was jailed for life last year.