CASE STUDY
Bringing the Story Home - Trojan Horse in Birmingham
22 Jan 2020
BY JULIA FARRINGTON
A scene from Trojan Horse - a play which dramatises the real-life story of a false claim that schools in Birmingham were radicalising children. Credit: The Other Richard
A scene from Trojan Horse - a play which dramatises the real-life story of a false claim that schools in Birmingham were radicalising children. Credit: The Other Richard

The story of the Trojan Horse Affair hit the national press in early 2014. “Hardline” Muslim teachers and governors were accused of plotting to take over the running of a cluster of Birmingham schools. Adapted from the real-life testimonies of those at the heart of the UK government’s inquiry, Lung Theatre investigates what really happened in this case. Originally developed with Leeds Playhouse, Trojan Horse, winner of an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award, the 75-minute verbatim play was created out of 200 hours of interviews and performed by a cast of five actors playing multiple roles. A simultaneous translation into Urdu was made available via headsets and a bilingual edition of the play is published by Oberon Books.

What made the play controversial?

The play Trojan Horse sets out to give voice to the people at the centre of the so-called Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham, a scandal involving claims of an alleged conspiracy to introduce an Islamist or Salafist ethos into several schools in Birmingham, England, after a letter sent to the local council was leaked to the press. Allegations in the letter triggered an investigation by government inspectors, which found evidence of some of the directors and teachers of the schools holding homophobic and misogynistic views and of pupil segregation. A case was conducted against the school teachers, but eventually collapsed because of a mishandling of evidence by the prosecution.

Political advisor Nick Timothy, writing about the premiere of the play at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018, objected strongly to the play’s characterisation of events. Rather than accepting that Trojan Horse was a plot “by hardline Muslims to convert secular state schools into austere Islamic faith schools” the play puts forward the idea that it was a government campaign, motivated by “institutionalised racism”, that “demonised” Birmingham’s Muslim community”. Timothy calls this interpretation of events a “fiction that has been contradicted by countless investigations” and concludes his article by arguing that “any attempt to rewrite the history of the Trojan Horse, must not be allowed to succeed”.  

In their book Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Trojan Horse Affair, academics John Holmwood, who advises Lung Theatre on this production, and Theresa O’Toole argue that the TH affair was a “fabrication” on the part of the government and supported by some factions in the media used to justify the introduction of the Prevent Duty, which many believe has had a significant impact on freedom of expression in schools, especially with sizeable Muslim student population. As journalist Samira Shackle says in an article for The Guardian: “The documents alleging a conspiracy to Islamise Birmingham schools were debunked – but the story remains as divisive as ever.”

Art and censorship

This case study forms part of Index on Censorship’s work on art and censorship and explores in particular the challenges in mounting politically sensitive work, and work that relates to the experiences of traditionally marginalised communities.

The aim of this case study series is not to assess the artistic merits of an artwork — but rather to reflect on lessons learned by writers, venues, audiences — on how best to support the creation and production of challenging work.

Development of the play

Collaborative approach to script writing

Throughout this project the authors had long  debate with the teachers, pupils and governors whose testimonies drive the narrative of the play. It was clear that the play had to be as accessible to detractors — including members of parliament, those in the teaching profession and those engaged in counter-extremism work — as it was to people in Alum Rock, the Birmingham suburb where the schools were situated. The authors worked with the protagonists and script consultant Aisha Khan from Freedom Studios in Bradford for two years. 

Support at development stage

Gilly Rhodes, the new work producer at Leeds Playhouse supported the play from the outset. Woodhead and Monks said that she was the only person to believe in the show from the very beginning: “No one else wanted to take the risk.” Rhodes told Index she was “convinced by the rigour with which Lung approached the subject” and the theatre’s artistic development programme, Furnace, allowed them to work over an extended period. Rhodes witnessed how Monks, from Birmingham herself and Woodhead, a local artist, at first struggled to get the show into venues, but how, once it won an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and an Edinburgh First at the Fringe, venues started to take note.

Building relationships with political figures

Early on in the process, the authors interviewed Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, who was interested in the project as part of her campaign to raise awareness of Islamophobia in the Conservative party. Baroness Warsi agreed to host the play at the Houses of Parliament in March 2020, at the invitation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, which she chairs. Baroness Warsi also wrote the forward to the publication of the play script. The APPG and other Westminster MPs are a key target audience for the play allowing it to fulfil one of its goals: to speak truth directly to power.

Outreach work

A dedicated Engagement Manager, Mediha Ansari Khan, joined the team. Ansari Khan’s role was to build trust with the communities where she encountered suspicion about theatre in general and confusion in particular about what the the play was trying to achieve and why it had not been written by a British Muslim. In spite of these difficulties Ansari Khan was very positive about the engagement in the post-show question and answer sessions, which formed a key component of the outreach strategy for the play. “We have started a discourse with the Muslim community – the conversation has always been there but we are encouraging more people to talk about this,” Ansari Khan said. “A lot of people were very fearful about talking about terrorism and extremism and Prevent Duty – we are trying to remove some of the fear, that is the first step before any government level change – mobilising people to talk about it, to question their councillors and people in authority,” she told Index.

Supportive venue

Midland Arts Centre  – a leading UK arts venue – championed the play and defended the decision to bring the story back to Birmingham despite considerable pressure internally and externally to pull the play. The venue welcomed the writers and key protagonists into the space in the year leading up to the performance, so that by the time the play was performed, the protagonists had a strong sense of ownership in the building.1

Performing in Birmingham – ‘bringing the story home’

The performances in Birmingham were, according to co-author and director Matt Woodhead, “the whole point really. The debate had been so one-sided and the teachers and governors had not had the means to amplify their side of the story. Being able to stand up and say something uninterrupted in front of 220 people at the MAC was important.”

Post-show Q&As

Every show was followed by a question and answer session, giving the audience space and time to engage with the issues the play raised. This was an integral part of the how the tour was conceived.

Inviting protagonists to Q&A

Tahir Alam, the chair of governors of one who the schools involved in the TH scandal who was subsequently banned from involvement in schools, was one of many of those involved directly in the affair to attend the post-show discussions. He attended as many as he could around the country and all the post shows in Birmingham. He emphasised the importance of this: “When you see the real people, you are reminded it is not fictional,” he told Index.

Managing the Q&As

Critics of the play had, according to co-author Helen Monks, raised concerns about the Q&A session in particular because, she said, they argued the “audience would not be able to handle open debate”. The team put in place show-stop procedures — procedures for rapid and controlled interruption of a performance — for the cast and stage manager in case of hostility.  The Q&A host had methods of managing disrespectful or hostile speakers from the floor and the front of house team were all heavily briefed with how to deal with disruptive individuals. All went ahead without incident. Helen Monks said: “The Q&As felt like really safe-spaces even when people weren’t agreeing with each other.” 

Academic advisor to the play

John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, was an expert witness for the defence in the cases of professional misconduct brought against senior teachers and governors at Park View Educational Trust by the National College of Teaching and Leadership and co-author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Trojan Horse Affair. He has exhaustive knowledge of the affair and brought gravitas to the young company. He acted as an advisor to the play, reading early versions of the script, and went out on the autumn tour, speaking on all the post show Q&As.  

Questionnaires

These were handed out after every show. The feedback is being processed and analysed by the play’s outreach manager at time of writing.

Translation into Urdu

The play was available as a simultaneous translation on headsets at every performance on the tour as an essential offer to target audiences and there was significant audience take up. It was translated by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqui who wrote publicly about her concerns with the script. In their response, published here for the first time, the authors describe how their collaborative methodology ensured that the story was directed throughout by the people at the centre of the story.

1. AD/CEO of MAC, Debbie Kermode, told Index in an interview: “Trojan Horse was an important and meaningful play for us to support as it allowed an alternative perspective and voice to the community, and we took it on proudly and paid considerable attention to work we did around it. We invested our own funds to support the translation of the play into Urdu and the supported outreach work. We worked with residents in Alum Rock, families and ex-pupils who supported the play and the issues raised, which they felt passionate about sharing. We approached the Core Education Trust which in 2015 took over the running of the schools caught up in the Trojan Horse Affair, with a strong desire to build a partnership, however unfortunately for many reasons the school leadership resisted any engagement with us, and voiced serious concerns about MAC taking the play.”

What obstacles did the production encounter in Birmingham?

Pressure on venue to cancel the show

Adrian Packer, CEO and co-founder of Core Education Trust which in 2015 took over the running of some of the schools implicated in the Trojan Horse Affairs, contacted the MAC to express concerns about the play coming to Birmingham. According to AD/CEO of MAC, Debbie Kermode, the trust cited the need to keep the children in the schools safe and also raised the threat of protest from the parents. Members of the trust’s board of directors contacted MAC trustees and a trust board member accused Kermode of having an extremist agenda. “So it got quite personal and unpleasant,” she said. This allegation of pursuing an extremist agenda echoed political advisor Nick Timothy’s claim, that people who supported the play “[d]eliberate or not, left-wingers in the arts and media risk playing the extremists’ game.” Adrian Packer was approached for comment and an initial interview was cancelled. A new date for an interview has not been scheduled at time of writing (January 10). 

Partnership with the school

Kermode objected to the pressure she was being put under by the Core Education Trust, so it was suggested that she and Helen Monks meet with the headteacher of Rockwood Academy, formerly Park View — one of the schools at the centre of the TH Affair. Both Monks and Kermode said it was clear that the objective of this meeting was to persuade MAC not to do the play.  Many of the reasons given were to do with the safety of the children currently in the school. “People still talk about the TH Affair; it’s still there and bubbling away,” said Monks. “We took that as a sign that the play should be put on so these issues can be confronted and the school could be seen to be listening. We suggested that we do the play in collaboration with the school and they could frame it as they would like to, an opportunity to acknowledge what had happened. But they were not keen to do that and put it down to not having enough time or resources.”

Accusations of lack of balance

Political adviser Nick Timothy in the article cited above claimed “Senior education figures have told me that, when their accounts did not suit the play’s narrative, their interviews with Monks and Woodhead were terminated early”. This claim was then repeated by critic Dominic Cavendish in his review of the play. When asked to respond to this, Monks and Woodhead said they did not terminate or cancel any interviews. “The only person we can think this claim could have come from was a headteacher from a school that was outside the group of schools we were focusing on who we met very late in the process of writing the play. We made it clear before meeting that we were giving voice to the teachers and governors accused in the plot. After making him aware of this, he chose to cancel the interview on the day. When we were next in Birmingham (for our very final interviews) we re-approached him and he did not respond.” 

Media interest withdrawn

BBC West Midlands Today responded positively to the play coming to Birmingham and planned a TV news feature. Interviews were arranged with cast and creative team, but cancelled at the last minute. They said a more urgent item had come up, even though the team were in Birmingham for several days. 

Lack of alternative perspectives in Q&A

The opportunity to have an open debate in Birmingham about the state of education in the city was not taken up. Invitations extended to Adrian Packer, Nick Timothy and other of the play’s detractors were not taken up. The council requested 10 free tickets to the performance at the MAC but did not show up. 

Community venue double booked

On the Monday before the Saturday performance, the team were told that the hall they had booked in Alum Rock four months previously had been double booked. An alternative venue — the community hall in the grounds of Rockwood Academy, formerly Parkview, one of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse Affair — was found at late notice. The change of venue was not announced in advance as it was only three minutes away from the previous venue, so the audience walked from one to the other on arrival. “Going back to Alum Rock for the performance was electrifying. The trauma was there, but having a guerrilla performance on the doorstep of the school was a surreal experience – the energy, the emotion and the unity in an intimate space. It was epic,” said Inam Malik – one of the teachers at the centre of the affair.

Police incident

Birmingham Parent Forum – a group linked to the LGBT protest — printed a leaflet advertising the performance at the community centre, independently of the play’s marketing strategy. Adrian Packer wrote to MAC’s Debbie Kermode, even though the community event was unrelated to the MAC performances, to say flyers had been distributed outside Rockwood Academy. Packer said he had alerted relevant local and national authorities and police were at the school. Four police officers came to the venue on Saturday evening at the start of the show, stayed a few minutes and left.

Audience response in Birmingham

The play attracted capacity crowds for four showings at the MAC, the largest South Asian audience ever recorded at the theatre, and the single performance in Alum Rock, also full to capacity, attracted a 90% South Asian audience. At the end of the show the teachers and governors came on stage and took a bow and invited people to stay for the Q&A.  “The show attracted four capacity audiences, and I think we could have filled it 10 times over, with the majority of the audience from South Asian heritage, who welcomed the opportunity to talk about it even if they didn’t all agree!”2

2. Debbie Kermode interviewed for this case study.

Reflections

Inam Malik – former Head of Modern Foreign Languages at Park View and one of two teachers who were banned from teaching for life, a ban that was subsequently overturned in High Court.

“A lot has been written about the Trojan Horse Affair, but it has been very one-sided, sensationalist, extremely irresponsible reporting, jumping to conclusions, leading on the story of a jihadist plot. It became a political football.  But this play told the story in a balanced way. It captured everything – Tahir’s vision, the pupils’, teachers and the council’s perspectives. There has been so much care, commitment and courage to put this together. I can’t thank Helen and Matt enough, and Professor Holmwood – his passion for speaking the truth and educating people is incredible.

There was a huge appetite for this show in Birmingham. It sold out weeks in advance. I attended all the performances and spoke on all the after shows. It was very emotional and personal to me. My family and friends were there, my network. I felt naked in front of them, I choked up. But it was an opportunity for the people of Birmingham to know the impact on me and others involved and the wider society. It opens up old wounds, which won’t close until we get justice, but talking about it heals as well. People were very sympathetic and quite shocked. They were saying they must have been asleep, ‘we can’t allow something like this to happen again’. We had members of the LGBT community on the panel and in spite of what we see in media, faith based and LGBT communities can work together to support children’s education; the Muslim community shouldn’t be used as a tool [of division?]

Going back to Alum Rock for the performance was electrifying. The trauma was there, but having a guerrilla performance on the doorstep of the school was a surreal experience – the energy, the emotion and the unity in an intimate space. It was epic.

The play had a massive impact on the audience and on social media. Four days were not enough. So many people contacted me afterwards, upset they couldn’t get tickets.

Right now the Muslim community feels insecure, about Brexit, about our political leadership. We’ve been screwed over, so we have mixed feelings. Policies have changed as a result of Trojan Horse.  The impact is felt on a daily basis. Some parents are afraid that if they become governors and speak about their rights, they would be accused of being a repeat of Trojan Horse.  This play, written by non-Muslims, gives hope that there are still people out there who support justice. We need to get out and work for a better society together. You can’t allow the system to shut you down, you have to fight, you have to speak up.”

Qasim Mahmood – actor playing Tahir Alam – former head of Park View Trust

“I grew up in Alum Rock till I was 20 years old. My house is behind Nansen Primary school – across the road is Parkview. My dad and uncles went to Parkview and my cousins went to Parkview while this was happening; Tahir was a governor of my school.  So I was so part of that environment that the play is talking about.

When I was younger, I knew the Trojan Horse was happening but I didn’t know the other side, the side that the media wasn’t telling. The only person in my life who used to say it was bullshit was my dad. Everyone believed something bad had happened. It was so hurtful to discover the truth [through the play]. Since watching it, my Dad calls me up all the time to tell me how upset he feels. He was of the generation that only got one GSCE out of that school, he left when he was 15. He feels robbed of an education he could have had.

Bringing the play to Birmingham, I knew people would get it, would hear and understand. I wasn’t scared, but there was this added responsibility of serving this community. There were people in the audience who were affected by it. One of the teachers and his family were on the front row.

In the performance in Alum Rock, I had never been so close to what it was like to be in that  situation, because the school was right behind me. It was the most truthful performance I had done.  Near the end Tahir says something like Michael Gove came and destroyed this community and then walked away. Those lines felt so right and I got the weight of those words and my responsibility. Normally people laugh through the play. In Alum Rock, they didn’t laugh at all; normally they like Elaine Buckley – silence. You could feel how much they disliked her, what she was saying about the community, right there and then. People were nodding along, hearing this side of the story. But they were hurt in the room.

The LGBT issue is about being heard, and they don’t feel heard at the moment. There was one guy who came to the play who said ‘I didn’t speak out then but I am speaking out now’. I wondered if has an issue about LGBT or is it more because he feels he is not being heard. The people I know who came to see the play have more of an understanding it is part of their history now. Now it feels like this is part of our story.”

Artistic Director/CEO Midland Arts Centre Debbie Kermode

“MAC is located within a large South Asian, with significant, relatively conservative Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.  We have a long-term objective to engage critically with the issues that are relevant to these communities. It is not enough just to have people from BAME communities attending the venue.  Trojan Horse was therefore an important and meaningful play for us to support as it allowed an alternative perspective and voice to the community, and we took it on proudly and paid considerable attention to work we did around it. We invested our own funds to support the translation of the play into Urdu and the supported outreach work. We worked with residents in Alum Rock, families and ex-pupils who supported the play and the issues raised, which they felt passionate about sharing. We approached the Core Education Trust which in 2015 took over the running of the schools caught up in the Trojan Horse Affair, with a strong desire to build a partnership, however unfortunately for many reasons the school leadership resisted any engagement with us, and voiced serious concerns about MAC taking the play.

Adrian Packer, CEO and Co-Founder of Core Education Trust, was a vocal critic of the play coming to Birmingham at this time, given the current controversy over teaching of LGBT lessons and other concerns, because the Trojan Horse happened in schools he has jurisdiction over, he was keen to influence MAC’s decision to take the play. I absolutely understood his feeling that it was the school’s story, taking place in their classrooms and that he has a duty of care to his pupils, however it was difficult to reconcile his belief that he represented the views of the wider community. As one mother of a pupil I spoke to after the show at MAC candidly said, “They changed everything. They came in, got their MBEs and OBES and felt they “rescued” the situation.” It was clear that many community members took a different view and wanted a safe space to discuss the issues raised.

Adrian Packer talked about opening old wounds that would upset the community, however together with the play’s writer and director, the team at MAC felt that it opened up an important debate that has been suspended since the collapse of the trial. Sadly we were never going to see eye to eye. From where I stand, perceptions of what happened in 2014 are complex and there is a wide range of opinion about the Affair.  The show attracted 4 capacity audiences, and I think we could have filled it 10 times over,  with the majority of the audience from South Asian heritage, who welcomed the opportunity to talk about it even if they didn’t all agree!”

Member of Core Education Trust

“We invited Adrian Packer to respond in November, but he was unfortunately not available to comment until mid-January, after the publication of this case study. We asked for comment from other members of the Trust, but have not had any response.”

Professor John Holmwood

“Dialogue secures democracy; constraining dialogue breeds suspicion.  Everything is resolved through talking about it. But when it comes to Trojan Horse many people think that if you talk about it people will tell you things that you wont want to hear. So let’s stop people talking about it.  

This is about justice, about not being heard, not being listened to, and the power of the state to create the narrative and let the consequences be dealt with by other people. They are not going to take responsibility.  But at the core of this is a discussion about education. And the play is really saying – if you accept that this is a false narrative then what this play is about is how should we be managing teaching ethnic minority children in multi-cultural society.  For the parents, it is also a question of justice – how do we get the same educational chances for our children as for others. If it had been white middle class children who were failing their parents wouldn’t have put up with it and they would have been supported in their desire for change. When Muslims try and take it into their hands they are accused of being extremists.

Wherever the play is performed wherever the story is told, it is accepted and what people respond to is that there is an obvious injustice there – there is never a rebuttal of the story there is only an attempt to have the story not heard.  My optimism is that anyone who comes to it fresh sees how the story was previously constructed was false, that is how many people have responded to the play.  That for me is the Hillsborough comparison.  It is why the play went down so well in Liverpool.  Probably the best set of performances they were right into the play right from the start.  There is no need to explain to us what happened they understood, because they had been regarded that they were not worth listening to. The awareness that the play generated was exactly what the play’s detractors were afraid of, but what drives the play – to build grassroots  support to demand an inquiry.”

Summary

The performances of Trojan Horse in Birmingham demonstrate that it is possible to bring even the most highly controversial, politically sensitive subject matter successfully onto the stage. 

The stakes could not have been higher. As Tahir Alam said, the political and educational impact of Trojan Horse “will last for decades”. 

Many people felt that this made it too risky to bring the play to Birmingham. Nevertheless, the play was successfully and safely performed on home territory to capacity audiences. The reasons behind the successful production of challenging material are always complex, however it is possible to identify some clear strands of best practice that helped to contribute to this success:

  • the care taken with the script
  • effective community engagement work
  • the making available of simultaneous translations of the performances;
  • the curation of after-show discussions; 
  • support from established cultural organisations
  • political and academic champions

Turnout surpassed expectations and more performances had to be added in at the MAC. The best testimony to the fact that so-called hard to reach audiences will come out when what is on offer is relevant and important enough, is that another theatre in Birmingham has expressed interest in bringing the play back for a longer run, later in the year to meet the demand for tickets. A return trip to Birmingham also offers another opportunity to engage with alternative voices in the post show Q&A.

The play is a very strong example of free speech in action through theatre: it provides a platform to challenge a mainstream narrative, and through the Q&A, extends an invitation to people with very little access to public debate, to discuss the issues raised. This, and the ultimate goal of calling power to account, illustrate the important role theatre can have within civil society. 

However, there is another free speech angle on this production that is worth considering and that is about authorship and who is free to tell which stories.

From our work on Homegrown, Believers are but Brothers and in our research on the impact of Prevent on artistic freedom of expression more generally, we have heard repeatedly how difficult it is for Muslim artists to critique the state/establishment. The fact that the creative team for Trojan Horse was non-Muslim begs the question, would it have been possible for a Muslim artist to make this play? The play’s translator, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqui, voiced her concern about the white lens in her reflections on translating the play and wondered “what this play would have looked like if it had been made by a Pakistani Muslim from Birmingham”. She also asks the all-important question for the arts sector: “When will room be made in the industry for that play?”

Response from CORE Education Trust

CORE Education Trust is grateful to have this opportunity to make the following factual accuracy corrections to this article:

The article states “Core Education Trust which in 2015 took over the running of some of the schools implicated in the Trojan Horse Affairs.” This is incorrect. CORE Education Trust (company number 07949154) ran the schools referred to in the article before, during and after the Trojan Horse affair from 2012.

The article states that Core’s CEO “contacted the MAC to express concerns about the play coming to Birmingham.” In an email to the article’s author on 25th November 2019, the CEO stated “I don’t actually have concerns about the play.”

The article states “Members of the trust’s board of directors contacted MAC trustees and a trust board member accused Kermode of having an extremist agenda.” This is incorrect. Ms Kermode has confirmed that only one Board Member, Ammo Talwar contacted her and that he did not contact her on behalf of Core Education Trust. He made contact in a personal capacity.

The article states “Adrian Packer was approached for comment and an initial interview was cancelled. A new date for an interview has not been scheduled at time of writing (January 10).” A scheduled interview was cancelled because Adrian Packer was on jury service at that time. Before and after that time he was in regular, positive contact with the author of the article.

The article states “Kermode objected to the pressure she was being put under by the Core Education Trust.” Ms Kermode has confirmed that she felt pressure from Ammo Talwar, not from Core Education Trust.

The article states “Both Monks and Kermode said it was clear that the objective of this meeting (with the Rockwood Headteacher) was to persuade MAC not to do the play.
The Rockwood Headteacher, Sofia Darr, refutes that version of events. She was interviewed by the author of the article but in an email on 18th August 2020, the author said that her editor had “closed the piece to additional voices.”

The article states that an alternative venue “the community hall in the grounds of Rockwood Academy, formerly Parkview, one of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse Affair — was found at late notice.” The is incorrect. The Naseby Centre is not in the grounds of Rockwood. It is a neighbouring building run separately and independently by Birmingham City Council.

The article states that there was “a guerrilla performance (of the play).” This is incorrect. If performed at the Naseby Centre as stated, the producers will have been given full permission and blessing from the local authority to perform it there.

CORE Education Trust
18 September 2020

Julia Farrington

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