LONDON - The British government on Monday announced that schools would be required to teach "British values" after inspectors found school board members with hard-line Muslim views had intimidated teachers and imposed religiously motivated restrictions at several institutions.
Inspectors were called in after an anonymous letter alleged a plot called "Operation Trojan Horse" by Muslim fundamentalists to infiltrate schools in the central England city of Birmingham.
Authorities believe the letter was a hoax, but the alleged plot triggered several inquiries and inflamed tensions in Britain's second-largest city, which has a large Muslim population.
Regulator the Office for Standards in Education said Monday it had found a "culture of fear and intimidation" at a minority of the 21 schools it inspected. Five were found to have failed to protect students from extremism.
Chief schools inspector Michael Wilshaw said there was evidence of an "organized campaign to target certain schools" by some members of their governing bodies.
Inspectors said members of governing boards had promoted a "narrow faith-based ideology" at some schools, whose students are overwhelmingly from Muslim backgrounds. One school attempted to ban mixed-sex swimming lessons; at another, music lessons were dropped because they were considered un-Islamic; and at a third, board members vetted the script for a nativity play and told staff they could not use a doll to represent the baby Jesus.
"Staff and some head teachers variously described feeling 'intimidated', 'undermined' or 'bullied' by governors, and sometimes by senior staff, into making changes they did not support," Wilshaw said.
Park View Educational Trust, which runs three of the criticized schools, rejected the inspectors' verdict and said it would launch a legal challenge. Vice chairman David Hughes said the inspectors "came to our schools looking for extremism" but had not found any.
The "Trojan Horse" furor exposed a feud between Education Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May, who is responsible for law and order. Newspaper reports based on leaks and anonymous briefings saw each department blame the other for failing to tackle the roots of extremism.
Gove told lawmakers in the House of Commons Monday that he planned new rules to ensure that "all schools actively promote British values."
But there may be little consensus on what those values are — or what constitutes extremism.
The Muslim Council of Britain said it was concerned that the inspectors were conflating religious belief and extremism.
It said in a statement that "extremism will not be confronted if Muslims and their religious practices are considered as, at best, contrary to the values of this country, and at worst, seen as 'the swamp' that feeds extremism."
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