Editorial – The Trojan Horse affair

John Holmwood

In February of this year, Serial and the New York Times published a podcast on the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair. The latter was an alleged plot to ‘Islamicise’ schools in Birmingham and Bradford that emerged in November 2013. It came to be centred on schools associated with Park View Educational Trust in Alum Rock Birmingham and its teachers and Chair of Governors, Tahir Alam.  

Media coverage of the ‘plot’ was overwhelmingly hostile through a three year period of inspections, inquiries and misconduct hearings against teachers. The case against senior leaders at PVET collapsed in May 2017 because of ‘serious impropriety’ on the part of lawyers acting for the Department of Education and its agency bringing the misconduct cases.  

There was a resounding silence from the journalists and political commentators covering the case, except to observe that the impropriety leading to the collapse was a ‘technicality’. It was at this point that Birmingham-based journalism student, Hamza Syed, pitched the idea of a podcast to Brian Reed, producer of Serial (an offshoot of the public broadcasting venture, This American Life). 

For the next four years, the two of them researched the affair and produced their podcast series in 8 parts, making up around 7 broadcast hours. The series was downloaded over 13 million times in the first three and a half weeks. The series established the injustice that underlay the affair across two episodes as well as the role of various actors, such as Humanists UK, Birmingham City Council and the Department for Education. But it was also a ‘whodunnit’, seeking the author of the letter that had triggered the affair. This was widely accepted as having been a hoax, even by the parties that were prosecuting the idea of a plot.  

It took a media organisation from outside the UK to provide the first systematic journalism to examine the events, but the response from the media within the UK was largely a resounding silence. They had been shown up for accepting the government’s script, but they neither responded, nor took up the offer by Brian Reed and Hamza Syed to provide all their material for further inquiries into the loose ends. Instead, they were denounced for being one-sided.  

This special issue of Discover Society represents the first revisiting of the Trojan Horse affair and its consequences in the light of the podcast. It is curated by Shereen Fernandez and Kamran Khan.  A final contribution, posted after the publication of a book on schooling in Birmingham by Colin Diamond (former official at the Department for Education with responsibility for investigations into Park View Educational Trust and Oldknow school), has been added to this series of articles.

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: Trojan Horse Affair Podcast, Serial


Holmwood, John 2022. ‘Editorial – The Trojan Horse Affair’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2022.02.0001