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

Herminder Channa, recently awarded an OBE, has transformed an academy at the centre of the Islamic extremism scandal

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?

“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.”...

...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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