trojan horse
Row over Muslim extremism in Birmingham schools has escalatedReuters

David Cameron has taken personal control of the response to alleged Muslim extremism in Birmingham schools as the affair dramatically escalated into a bitter clash between Ofsted inspectors and the schools at the heart of the claims.

The row has already led to the unprecedented disciplining by the prime minister of two of his most senior ministers and has now seen claims that Ofsted found no evidence of the extremist plots being alleged and had misrepresented the position in Birmingham after the political interventions.

The latest twists came as the long-awaited reports into the schools were published claiming five of the 21 schools inspected had failed to protect students from extremism, placing six into special measures, where they can be taken over by other schools.

The action was taken after the exposure of the so-called "Trojan Horse" letter allegedly setting out how Muslim extremists could take over Birmingham schools.

The letter is widely believed to be fake but it led to the inspectors' investigations which found some evidence that lessons in Christianity were quickly staged to hoodwink inspectors on their visit. Another Park View Educational Trust, which runs three of the schools was said to have "taken the Islamic focus too far".

But it was immediately pointed out the inspectors found no evidence of any plots of extremist teaching and there was a powerful rebuttal by leaders of the schools concerned.

Park View's vice-chairman, David Hughes, said: "Ofsted inspectors came to our schools looking for extremism, looking for segregation, looking for proof that our children have religion forced upon them as part of an Islamic plot.

"The reports found absolutely no evidence of this because this is categorically not what is happening at our schools," he said.

Lee Donaghy, a vice principal at one of the schools probed over the plot, also robustly rejected the reports, insisting his institution was part of the solution not part of the problem saying it was a "beacon of hope against isolation, poverty, drugs, crime and, yes, potential extremism".

Both men suggested the affair had been whipped up by "knee jerk reactions" from politicians.

His targets were clearly education secretary Michael Gove and home secretary Theresa May whose bitter row over which of them was to blame for failing to get a grip of the issue erupted into the public and saw them both disciplined by the prime minister.

Education secretary Michael Gove
Gove has been forced to apologiseReuters/andrewwinning

Gove was ordered to write a humiliating letter of apology for his behaviour while May was instructed to sack her most senior adviser, Fiona Cunningham, for escalating the row.

Cameron has now stepped in demanding radical changes in the way Ofsted carries out inspections, allowing them to descend on schools without prior notice, and convening a meeting of his extremism task force.

But rather than tackling the problem, it appears the row, which was wrapped up with the ministers' own political ambitions, is only set to escalate.

The fact some of the schools were created under the government's pet project of freeing them from local authority control, started under Tony Blair's administration, has led to claims it meant there was no local oversight to spot any extremism and nip it in the bud.

It also meant that ultimate responsibility for oversight defaulted to Whitehall, which many see as impractical.

Labour's Tristram Hunt laid the blame on the government, saying: "Cameron's schools policy has delivered a vacuum in the local oversight of our schools, leaving children exposed to falling standards and vulnerable to risks posed by extremists."

While the prime minister said: "Protecting our children is one of the first duties of government and that is why the issue of alleged Islamist extremism in Birmingham schools demands a robust response."

Amid the claims and counter claims, perhaps the most worrying aspect is that politics entered the equation and fanned the flames as ministers attempted to prove who was the toughest on Muslim extremism in schools.

That led to the general assumption there was such extremism being taught, although Ofsted appears to have found no evidence of that. However concerns have been raised about some of the teaching and the wider culture in the schools.

Both Gove and May will be cross-examined about the issue over the coming days amid real concerns that there may be too little focus on the facts by politicians eager to boost their anti-extremist credentials.

Meanwhile, the schools in Birmingham have been thrown into a real crisis with dire warnings of the effect it may have on local social cohesion.