A Sikh Principal, Too English for a Largely Muslim School
By KIMIKO DE FREYTAS-TAMURA DEC. 7, 2014
BIRMINGHAM, England — As a Sikh and second-generation Briton running a public school made up mostly of Muslim students, Balwant Bains was at the center of the issues facing multicultural Britain, including the perennial question of balancing religious precepts and cultural identity against assimilation.
But in January, Mr. Bains stepped down as the principal of the Saltley School and Specialist Science College, saying he could no longer do the job in the face of relentless criticism from the Muslim-dominated school board. It had pressed him, unsuccessfully, to replace some courses with Islamic and Arabic studies, segregate girls and boys and drop a citizenship class on tolerance and democracy in Britain.
“I suppose I was a threat, giving these children more British values, for them to be integrated into society,” Mr. Bains said in his first interview since the controversy over his departure.
His experience has helped bring to life the often deeply emotional and highly contentious conflicts unearthed by a British government investigation this year into whether organized groups of conservative Muslims were having undue influence on public schools.
The topic has become especially sensitive at a time when Britain is concerned about the radicalization of young Muslims in the country and their involvement with jihadis in Syria and Iraq. The investigation was prompted by an anonymous letter, sent last year to local officials in Birmingham, alleging an organized Islamic takeover of British schools in Muslim neighborhoods.
Conducted by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, or Ofsted, the inquiry found the allegations to be overstated. But the agency found much that was troubling about Muslim efforts to promote changes in secular public schools, and it has recently widened its investigation to 46 schools across the country.
The investigation found that five schools in Birmingham, including Mr. Bains’s, shared a pattern of behavior similar to what was described in the anonymous letter. The letter also cited Mr. Bains’s impending resignation, a month before it was made official and which only a few knew about, suggesting that the author was someone with detailed knowledge of the schools.
“The Sikh head running a Muslim school,” the letter said, “will soon be sacked and we will move in.”
The investigation found that some teachers and school board governors at the other schools were encouraging homophobia, anti-Semitism and support for Al Qaeda, sometimes inviting speakers who endorsed the establishment of a state run under Sharia law.
One school stopped music and drama lessons as well as Christmas and Diwali celebrations, and subsidized trips to Saudi Arabia for Muslim students.
In another school, the report found, girls and female teachers were discriminated against, and compulsory sex education, including discussions about forced marriage, was banned. Girls and boys seen talking for too long or considered flirtatious were reprimanded, while boys were given worksheets that said a wife had to obey her husband.
The report, released in July, highlighted Mr. Bains’s case and concluded that there had been a “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action, carried out by a number of associated individuals, to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham.”
Muhammad Khan, the chairman of the board of governors at the time, who is no longer at the school, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Three governors who were also present at meetings with Mr. Bains also refused to comment on his allegations.
Muslim leaders in Britain have condemned the report’s findings, saying it was wrong to conflate conservative Muslim practices with an alleged agenda to Islamicize school systems.
Mr. Bains, 47, was born to Indian immigrants in a suburb of Coventry notorious for prostitution and violent crime. He grew up listening to stories of how his father, a teacher in Punjab State, walked 30 miles each day to and from school. He would study by candlelight because his village had no electricity. After arriving in Britain and securing work as a laborer, he put his son and daughters through college.
“It made me value education more, and because it is free in this country,” Mr. Bains said. “I lifted myself out of poverty because of education. If I could do it, if I could break the cycle, other children could, too.”
His background, he said, is that “I’m an inclusionist.”
He added that he saw his role as being to “educate children to live and function in a multicultural Britain, to be appreciative of the views of other people, but also to express themselves.”
In 2012, he became head teacher of Saltley, a school where grades were falling behind the national average. In spite of his ordeal throughout 2013, the school achieved its best General Certificate of Secondary Education grades ever — roughly equivalent to the high school diploma in America. Britain’s school inspectorate judged the school as one of the most improved state schools that year.
“But I never got a single congratulation” from the school’s governing board, a mix of elected parents and other people from the community and members appointed to represent the staff and the local government, Mr. Bains said. “It was emotional harassment.”
The chairman of the governing board took to challenging his day-to-day decision making, Mr. Bains said. In one instance he was required to justify every decision he made during a three-month period, Mr. Bains said, including why he had students walk on the right side of the corridor instead of the left, what he said at assemblies and why he made changes to the school website. He had to print and distribute the resulting 300-page document to each of the 15 members of the governing board.
When a student threatened six classmates with a knife, he expelled the boy, a Muslim, in a decision supported by parents and the local authority. But governors reinstated the boy. Because Mr. Bains did not suspend another student, a white boy who had surrendered the weapon, talk spread among staff that he was racist and Islamophobic. He discovered a Facebook post and text messages calling on parents and students to protest against him, he said, and later learned that the message had even been circulated among local mosques.
“Some of the children would come in and tell me, ‘Mr. Bains, they’re going to egg your car today, so you better move your car,’ ” he said. “I felt very isolated, I was despondent. I was a head teacher going into work without any power.”
The treatment, he said, lasted 11 months, beginning just two months after he was appointed head teacher, until he resigned.
By then, all non-Muslim governors except one at his school had left. He was immediately replaced by a friend of the chairman of the board of governors. A number of staff members at other schools cited in the government investigation also resigned because they disagreed with the attitudes taken by some administrators. They also claimed that teachers had been appointed based on their religious zeal, not their teaching qualifications.
The government report partly vindicated him, Mr. Bains said. But if nothing changes, he said, “then it means anyone can just go in and destroy a school and get away with it.”
A version of this article appears in print on December 8, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: British Principal Who Resigned Believes He Was Seen as a Threat.