Headteacher who healed a Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ school: ‘We did it with love’

Running a school on love is a challenge, especially one riven by hate and failed by Ofsted. Five years ago, when Herminder Channa took over Golden Hillock, it was one of the schools at the centre of the “Trojan horse” attempt by a group of Muslim governors and senior teachers to impose the dictates of a hardline and politicised strand of Sunni Islam.

A government inquiry in July 2014 concluded that, though claims of a conspiracy were not proved, there was clear evidence that people in a position of influence in the school were espousing – or failing to challenge – extremist views and forcing on staff “an intolerant and aggressive Islamic influence”.

But today the comprehensive in Sparkhill, south Birmingham, renamed Ark Boulton academy, has been transformed into one of the most popular secondaries in the city, with 150 of the 170 year 7 places taken by children whose parents put it as their first choice; 83% of parents at the school are Muslim.

Ofsted and teachers at the school attribute the turnaround to Channa’s leadership, and earlier this month she was awarded an OBE for her services to education in the Queen’s birthday honours list.

So how did she repair relationships between the school and the predominantly Muslim community it serves?

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“One of the things I always say to our staff and parents, is that we will love our children as if they were our own,” she says. “The reason I say that is because when I reflect on my own children, I will hold them to the highest standards – in their uniform, their homework, the way they interact with their elders or help their siblings and peers. We want the same high standards for every child in our school. We are in loco parentis.”

Treating students with love and their families with respect has helped to heal the divisions, she believes. Discipline has its place, but love has a long-term influence, she says. “Showing that you care, even in the little things such as looking smart in their uniforms, shows them what love looks like. Teachers at Ark Boulton care with compassion, listen with love and help with humility.”

Because Golden Hillock was run by an academy trust, the Department for Education was responsible for its oversight. A government inquiry by Peter Clarke, a former head of the anti-terrorist branch, reported in 2014 that students were obliged to take a GCSE in religious education but only modules in Islam were taught; sex education and any mention of LGBT+ people were banned; and boys and girls were separated at assemblies. In 2014 Ofsted failed the school, rating it inadequate in every category.

The inspectors accused Golden Hillock of not keeping children safe from the risks associated with extremist views, and said female staff had complained of being spoken to in an intimidating manner by the school leadership; that teaching was inadequate; and that children’s progress was not properly monitored. Staff turnover was extremely high, with nearly two-thirds of the staff temporary “supply” teachers.

So it was with some trepidation that Channa, 41, became head in 2015 after the school was taken over by the Ark education charity. There was a lot to do, she recalls. “Staff morale was very low, parents had lost trust in the education system, and for the year 11s, I was their fourth principal and this was their third school name and third uniform.”

Before rescuing Ark Boulton, Channa, a Sikh, who was born locally in Sandwell, had helped to found the Nishkam High school in Birmingham, one of the first Sikh multi-faith free schools. Under her headship it gained Ofsted’s “outstanding” status in just 18 months.

She left Nishkam for Ark because, she says, she wanted to work with children in disadvantaged areas, where she felt she could make a difference. She says turning around Ark Boulton was a staff team effort that could not have been achieved without the academy chain’s support and training.

However, the school’s assistant principal, Yvette Crawford, describes Channa as inspirational. “The evolution may have seemed chaotic, random even. But I am in the privileged position of seeing this journey from the very beginning and believe me, nothing was accidental. Everything was planned.

“At the time, when you are part of a teaching staff that consists of 65% cover, having conversations with parents over the colour and fabric of a student’s shoes did not seem to be the thing. However, it absolutely was the thing. Those conversations in the beginning showed our parents and the community we serve how much thought we put into every aspect of their child’s education,” Crawford says.

Channa says her love of education came from her father, who wanted his three daughters to be self-sufficient and ready to serve society. She gained a degree in biosciences, choosing Wolverhampton University so she could live at home. After graduating, marrying, and starting a family – she has two daughters now aged 18 and 19 – she noticed the recruitment drive for teachers.

“I went along to a taster session at a high school. I walked into that classroom and yes, I could see it. It 100% clicked for me. I was in front of the children, like on a stage, teaching what I loved, which was science, and there was a big bursary for science teachers, which enabled me to put my girls into a nursery while I went on to do my PGCE training.

“I took on a new character when I was in the classroom – I would come across as being quite stern, perhaps because I’m quite tall, nearly 6ft, and I am quite vocal. I do like to talk,” she says.

Channa rejects the “zero tolerance”, strict and rigid approach to discipline popular with some educationists. “Young people are the product of their environment, and they need strong role models. It is never about the person; it is the behaviour, and I was always able to separate those two things. The behaviour is a reaction to something that has gone on and so it’s important to understand what caused it,” she says.

Golden Hillock’s name had changed but the people who wanted the school run in accordance with the Islamic faith were still there. “They came in when I held consultation meetings with the community and I valued their comments and point of view, but we were moving forward to do our best by the community, and they saw by my tone that I would not change course. Faiths want the same thing. We are all human, and the fabric that connects us is stronger than that which divides us – and I kept saying that. Faith has a place in society and should be embraced, and it’s the fear of faith that causes division,” she says.

In school, headscarves are optional and incorporated into the uniform, and the prayer room is multi-faith. Sex and relationships education has been re-introduced through the personal development curriculum – including mention of different sexual orientations – which is explained to parents who, if they have concerns, can raise them with the leadership team on the Friday informal coffee mornings.

“I say that I understand your faith and what you are saying, and I respect it. What we are doing in school is a different point of view that society has brought in, and we are making you aware of it. It is about dialogue,” she says. “We are saying faith absolutely has a place, that we embrace what happens at the weekends, and we are going to make our young people more tolerant and respectful because they know more and understand more.”

That, she hopes, coupled with the greater academic success of students – 95% now go on to higher education or training – will keep the school close to its community.

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