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Governing a school based on love is difficult, especially one riven by hatred and failed by Ofsted. Golden Hillock was one of the schools at the centre of a "Trojan horse" attempt by a group of Muslim governors and senior instructors to enforce the mandates of a hardline and politicised offshoot of Sunni Islam years ago when Herminder Channa took charge.

In July 2014, a government inquiry concluded that, while claims of a conspiracy were not proven, there was clear evidence that people in positions of influence at the school were espousing - or failing to challenge - extremist views and imposing an "intolerant and aggressive Islamic influence" on staff.

The Sparkhill, south Birmingham, renamed Ark Boulton Academy, has become one of the city's most popular secondary schools, with 150 of the 170 ,year 7 seats filled by students whose parents chose it as their first option; 83% of parents at the school are Muslim.

Ofsted and teachers at the school credit Channa's leadership for the school's turnaround, and she was granted an OBE for her services to education in the Queen's birthday honours list in 2020. 

Repairing relationships between the school and the Muslim community 

Channa says, “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 shares that this is because when she reflects on her own children, she ensures to hold them in high regard, whether in their uniform, their homework, the way they interact with their elders or help their siblings and peers. She further says, “We want the same high standards for every child in our school. We are in loco parentis.”

She feels that treating pupils with love and their families with respect has helped to heal the divisions. She believes that while discipline is important, love has a longer-term impact. Channa says that showing that you care, even in the little things such as looking great in their uniforms, shows children what love looks like. Ark Boulton teachers care with compassion, listen with love, and assist with humility.

Golden Hillock was overseen by the Department of Education because it was operated by an academy trust. In 2014, a government inquiry led by former anti-terrorist branch head Peter Clarke found that students were required to take a GCSE in religious education, but only modules in Islam were taught; sex education and any mention of LGBT+ people were prohibited; and boys and girls were separated at assemblies. In 2014, the school was rated inadequate in all categories by Ofsted.

The inspectors accused Golden Hillock of failing to protect children from the dangers of extremist ideologies, and stated female staff had complained of being intimidated by the school leadership; that teaching was substandard; and that children's progress was not properly monitored. The staff turnover rate was unusually high, with over two-thirds of the teachers working as temporary "supply" teachers.

The first step towards much-needed reformation

Channa took over as head of the school in 2015 when the Ark education organisation took over its management of it. She remembers that there was a lot to do. She was the year 11 students' fourth principal, and this was their third school name and third uniform. Staff morale was very low and parents had lost faith in the educational system.

Before saving Ark Boulton, Channa, a local Sandwell-born Sikh, assisted in establishing Birmingham's Nishkam High School, one of the earliest Sikh multi-faith free schools. In just 18 months, it received an "excellent" rating from Ofsted under her leadership.

She claims she left Nishkam for Ark because she wanted to work with kids in underprivileged communities because she thought she could make a difference there. She said that turning around Ark Boulton was a staff team effort and was impossible without the assistance and instruction of the academy chain.

Yvette Crawford, the school's associate principal, described Channa as motivating. She said, “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.” 

Channa attributes her interest in school to her father's wish for his three daughters to be self-sufficient and ready to serve society. She majored in biosciences at Wolverhampton University so she could live at home. She saw the teacher recruitment campaign after graduating, marrying, and raising a family. 

Channa opposes the "zero tolerance," tough and rigid approach to discipline advocated by some educators. She explains that young people are products of their surroundings, and they require great role models. It is never about the person; it is always about the behaviour, and she was always able to distinguish between the two. Since the behaviour is a reaction to something that has happened, it is critical to understand what caused it.

The transition towards cultural and religious harmony 

The name of Golden Hillock had changed, but the people who wanted the school to be operated in accordance with Islamic principles remained.  Channa shares that they came in when she hosted consultation meetings with the community. While she valued their thoughts and point of view, she was also pushing forward to do the best for the community. She propagated that all religions desire the same thing. 

Headscarves became optional at school and were incorporated into the uniform, and the prayer room is multi-faith. Sex and relationships education was reintroduced through the personal development curriculum, including a discussion of diverse sexual orientations, which was explained to parents, who can raise concerns with the leadership team on Friday informal coffee mornings if they have any.

Channa asserts that religious belief undoubtedly has a place in society, and she and her colleagues plan to teach our youth to be more tolerant and respectful as a result of their increased knowledge and comprehension. She has high expectations that this, together with the increased academic performance of students (currently, 95% of them go on to further study or training), will maintain the school's connection to the neighbourhood.

In conclusion, harmony between cultures is essential for the development and progress of humanity. When people from different cultures come together and appreciate each other's differences, it creates a sense of unity and understanding that can transcend boundaries and foster peace.

*Based on an article by Liz Lightfoot, published in The Guardian on 24th October 2020


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