23 December 2023 Sir Tim Brighouse – a tribute

Remembering Tim Brighouse, well-wisher  of the Muslim Council of Britain and the educationalist who challenged the Trojan Horse narrative

Peter Oborne, in his searing expose of Islamophobia, The Fate of Abraham, Why the West is Wrong, has a chapter on the Trojan Horse Affair of 2014, described as “a state-sanctioned attack on Muslims in East Birmingham, carried out in alliance with the mainstream media “.  Oborne notes that Tahir Alam, chair of governors of Park View school, “was banned for life from being a governor and accused of being an extremist dedicated to the destruction of British values. And as he faced these accusations, nobody of importance lifted a finger to help him.”

However, there were some within the educational establishment who did, like Robin Richardson, former chief inspector for education in the London borough of Brent and Sir Tim Brighouse – who passed away on 15 December 2023, aged 83.

Tim Brighouse and Robin Richardson were the lead signatories in a hard-hitting letter published in The Guardian on 3 June 2014,

Several major Ofsted reports are due to be published about the so-called “Trojan Horse” schools in Birmingham which are alleged to be at the centre of a plot to “Islamise” schools (Six schools criticised in Trojan Horse inquiry, 2 June). The reports will be a landmark in British educational history and the history of Britain as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, for better or for worse [. . .] 

First-hand accounts of the Ofsted inspections that have emerged are disturbing. They suggest that inspectors were poorly prepared and had an agenda that calls into question Ofsted’s claim to be objective and professional in its appraisal of standards in schools serving predominantly Muslim pupils.

Numerous sensationalised leaks have reinforced the perception of a pre-set agenda. It is beyond belief that schools which were judged less than a year ago to be “outstanding” are now widely reported as “inadequate”, despite having the same curriculum, the same students, the same leadership team and the same governing body. In at least one instance, these conflicting judgments were made by the same lead inspector. This has damaged not only the reputation of the schools but the integrity of the inspections process. This is uncharted territory, with Ofsted seemingly being guided by an ideology at odds with the traditional British values which schools are meant to espouse, particularly fairness, justice and respect for others.

Tim Brighouse began his career as a teacher and prior to appointment as chief education officer for Birmingham had a similar role in Oxfordshire. Dr. Karamat Iqbal, a former Education Adviser for Birmingham Education, in his British Pakistani Boys, Education and the role of Religion [Routledge, 2019; p. 33] noted that “During his time as Chief Education Office in Birmingham (1993-2002) Sir Tim Brighouse regarded underachievement amongst ethnic minority pupils one of the most important issues of his tenure. It was an issue that Pakistani heritage parents had brought to his attention.”  Brighouse listened to parents and understood their need for children to imbibe Islamic beliefs and values: “it was to be expected that elders in any society would seek to ensure their young to learn those skills and that will enable them and their society to survive and thrive” (Iqbal, p. 88).

In 2007, The Muslim Council of Britain published Towards Greater Understanding, Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools. It was the first comprehensive attempt by Muslim professionals in the education sector “to provide background information on relevant Islamic beliefs and practices and values and to deal with issues arising within schools that are important to and may be of concern to Muslim pupils and their parents.” The foreword was jointly signed by the Secretary General of the MCB at the time, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, and himself an educationalist, and Tahir Alam, in his capacity as chair of the organisation’s Education Committee.

Even though the right wing media’s response was hostile (‘Muslims tell us how to run our schools’), Tim Brighouse ran the gauntlet and attended its launch as chief guest. He appreciated the spirit in which it had been placed in the public domain.

It was appropriate that I follow Tahir [as speaker].  I feel that I have followed him on quite a few occasions and I’d like to start by saying that fifteen years ago, when I went to Birmingham, I wish I had this document. He knows, perhaps better than anybody else in the room, just how insecure (not maybe!) I was, but lots of the community were, about issues to do with Islam and Muslim people and the Muslim community.

And that led us, sometimes because of lack of knowledge and our lack of confidence, to take up positions, or not to take up positions, that got in the way of unlocking the potential of all children within our schooling system. So I would have welcomed that 15 years ago. Thanks to Tahir and lots of other colleagues, many of whom are in this room. I think that during that period we started to do much better in terms of unlocking the minds and opening the hearts of children who came from Muslim families and children who came from families of many other faiths.

 I have to confess to you here that I am a person without religious faith. I think I have got faith of some sort. I have deep faith in the power of education. I certainly honour people who have different faiths. It seems to me that, in particular during the time I was in Birmingham, I was learning about the issues of pluralism and of respect for people of different faiths and that faith was extraordinarily important in many people’s lives. And that when they went to school, it was our duty, enshrined in the law, to make sure that we honour their position of faith, and I don’t think that we have done that as well in the past. I think this will be a hugely powerful contribution to ensure that the Muslim community in our schools – although you refer to a figure of 2 to 3% of our schools and your ambition is 500 schools – in the first place I could tell you of 500 schools in Birmingham that would welcome this document and that is in Birmingham alone. And I could tell you that another 3000 other schools in London would welcome this document and I wish I’d had it.

 I read it cover to cover. I think it is a fantastic document and in many of the areas, where Tahir is acknowledging that, it’s perhaps stating an ideal that may be impractical. I refer to the issue, for example, of changing facilities which may be impractical in the first instances. But I ask of everybody, whatever their faith, whether you believe as I do, if what’s set out here as a desirable proposition for young people’s changing for P.E. isn’t something that anybody from any faith wouldn’t welcome as an ambition state; and that you wanted for everybody’s children what we wanted for our own children and we would be very anxious to provide? I certainly feel it is for my own children.

I think in those areas we should commend you for setting out in writing many of the issues that affect all of us whatever our faith background. Now I referred to the past, and I now refer to the present. I think the challenge that is presented to us today, if you forgive me for saying so, is a challenge to every other faith in our community. We need documents such as this from all faith positions. And I hope people from different faiths will read this document and will make sure that the schooling system has a reference from this point, of the sort that they can use in their schools.

[Transcript of Speech by Professor Tim Brighouse, Chief Adviser for London Schools, 21st February 2007. Source: MCB Archives Collection]

In its obituary in The Guardian (20 December), Tim Brighouse was described as “one of Britain’s most influential and charismatic educationists who was a champion of state schools”.  He was knighted in 2009. For those who knew him professionally, or encountered him in seminars, their memory will be of a towering personality, frank, genuinely committed to making Britain an inclusive and pluralistic  society that is  fair in its dealings with its Muslim population.

Dr Bari offers his personal tribute, “Sir Tim Brighouse was regarded as a gifted educationist and as the Schools Commissioner for London between 2002 and 2007.  I always found him very warm and down-to-earth. His passion for educational improvement of the disadvantaged children was unmatched. He left a lasting impact on the field. May his contributions continue to inspire those in education.”

JS/December 2023

Acknowledgements: Dr Karamat Iqbal, co-editor with Professor Tahir Abbas, Addressing Muslim needs in Ethnicity, Religion, and Muslim Education in a Changing World: Navigating Contemporary Perspectives on Multicultural Schooling in the UK (Routledge 2024).