Army life gives Trojan Horse schoolchildren a fresh focus

It is an incongruous sight. In the school at the heart of the “Trojan Horse” controversy, excited pupils are mingling with soldiers in full army uniform.

At a tented outdoor kitchen, an irascible old warrior bawls instructions about knife safety as children wearing hygiene gloves bend over chopping boards to slice up strawberries, chatting away.

Pupils take turns to splat targets with multicoloured missiles from harmless paintball rifles at an inflatable shooting range near by. Children laugh and wave from the cab of an army transport lorry and poke at equipment in a camouflaged field hospital.

From next term, some of these youngsters will learn to shoot real rifles with live ammunition. This is a recruiting day run by the British Army for a new combined cadet force (CCF) contingent at Rockwood Academy in Birmingham.

In 2014 this school, then called Park View Academy, was in the news for months amid claims that it was controlled by hard-line Muslims in a plot to seize control of schools and impose a strict Salafist culture. Calls to prayer were broadcast over the school PA system.

Ofsted labelled Park View inadequate, saying it was not raising pupils’ awareness of the risks of extremism, not vetting outside speakers for Islamic-themed assemblies, and giving its overwhelmingly Muslim pupils few chances to learn about cultures beyond their own. Its chairman of governors, Tahir Alam, was subsequently accused of putting pupils at risk of vulnerability to radicalisation and banned from involvement with schools.

Two years on, the turnaround is remarkable. In March the renamed Rockwood Academy was removed from special measures and rated a good school by inspectors, as was its sister primary school Nansen. The cadet corps is one of several initiatives to introduce children from Alum Rock, a poor, insular community in east Birmingham, to modern Britain.

A partnership was forged with the Lawn Tennis Association to give coaching to pupils and weekend loans of rackets so that they and their families can play tennis in parks and sports centres. Children from Rockwood and Nansen went to cheer on Andy Murray in the Davis Cup in Birmingham in March. A small group even spent a day at Wimbledon.

Another link is with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which runs an after-school drama club at Rockwood and hosted a theatre workshop for pupils from both schools. The school PA system now occasionally plays pop songs.

So how have parents reacted? During the Trojan Horse controversy, some people tried to justify the narrow curriculum and austere culture enforced in such schools as responding to pressure from traditionalist Muslim parents.

Fuzel Choudhury, principal at Rockwood, laughs this away. The previous evening, he says, he held an information evening at which he was inundated by parents asking about the cadet corps. Already about 40 children have signed up, half of them girls. He predicts the number will reach 60, a large contingent for a state school.

Cath Rindl, head teacher of Nansen, organised the primary school’s first residential trip for at least a decade — a three-night trip to Kingswood, Staffordshire, for its oldest pupils — and found huge demand. The previous regime did not take children on overnight visits.

“I had parents on a waiting list,” Ms Rindl says. “We are going to have two trips next year.”

Adrian Packer, chief executive of the Core Education Trust, which took over sponsorship of both schools, says that parents in Alum Rock want opportunities for their children just as any other families do. Although the school achieved strong GCSE results before the Trojan Horse affair, he says it had a cramming approach: children took a limited number of GCSEs over three years but had very few other opportunities. There was a deep-rooted culture of fear and intimidation, he says.

The school is also confronting the issue of radicalisation. It has worked with a media company, Maverick TV, to develop a curriculum to protect students from online grooming, called #Extre(me).

Down a set of stairs and along a corridor, this is being tried out in a lesson before its introduction in the next school year. The programme, designed in consultation with teachers and pupils, seeks to help children deconstruct online recruiting methods used by extremists.

A whiteboard displays a page from a website asking the class of 12 and 13-year-olds to consider how someone can be persuaded to do or believe something: “nice” ways such as flattery, showing respect, offering a sense of belonging; “nasty” ways such as bribes, blackmail, gossip or shame.

Other pages explain more about grooming. The teacher, Ayisha Ali, explains how something as simple as “liking” a Facebook page or post could make them a target for material from radicals and discusses who they can talk to if they find something that alarms them: their family, teachers, police.

Afterwards, some of the pupils say they found this helpful.

“It told us there are a lot of scary people out there,” said Ibrahim Aftab, 13. “If you are vulnerable you can start agreeing with them, thinking about their view.”

Humna Shahzad, 13, said: “We feel more safe because we know you can come to the teacher if you feel unsafe.”

Adam Hussein, 12, is among the pupils who have signed up to CCF and is looking forward to outdoor activities such as rock climbing. “I want to be a policeman in the future and this can get me through,” he says.

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