‘Trojan horse’ and indoctrinating youth in eighteenth-century England

Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Two years ago ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ caused widespread alarm in the media and panic on the part of the British government. Yet the concern about religious and political influences in schools is hardly new. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, writers concerned about the enemy within targeted Protestant Dissenters. Their suggestions about who should control the education of the nation’s children, perhaps worryingly, have surprising resonance today.

In March 2014, a letter was leaked to the British media suggesting that a coordinated group of Islamists were planning to work covertly to install sympathetic governors in several schools across Birmingham, in what became infamously known as ‘Operation Trojan Horse’. A month later, Birmingham City Council revealed that it had, in addition, received hundreds of reports from parents and staff concerned about the forced imposition of an Islamist ethos in supposedly multi-faith schools. Thereafter followed a government investigation, which found a “sustained, co-ordinated agenda to impose segregationist attitudes and practices of a hardline, politicised strain of Sunni Islam” in a small number of Birmingham schools.[1] Part of the government’s response to the findings was to insist on the promotion of ‘British values’ in schools, including tolerance and fairness. Funding terms for academies were also adjusted to allow the Secretary of State for education to shut down any academies acting contrary to such values. [2]

Wind the clock back 300 years, and we witness a similar battle over the promotion of values in schools, albeit on rather different terms. The 1689 ‘Toleration Act’ had given Protestants who dissented from the Church of England the right to worship in registered meeting houses, but did not mention education, and thus the legal position of Dissenting schools and academies was ambiguous. Concerned that Dissenter control of education might teach children to oppose the Established Church and monarchy, Tories and High Anglicans fought successfully to introduce the ‘Schism Act’ in 1714, which insisted that educational institutions had to be run by Church of England conformists, and licensed by a bishop.

For some, the desire to suppress Dissenting influence over children was an urgent matter of national security. Particularly striking was a proposal put forward by an anonymous author in a 1703 pamphlet. The text begins by warning that:

The stronger these Factions grow, the more dangerous they are, and never fail to produce Commotions and Rebellions in the State, and make Religion the Author of War and Bloodshed. [3]

The only way to prevent the corrupting and divisive influence of religious Dissent over the nation was, for this author, to ensure greater regulation of education. In a proposal that sounds in some aspects not dissimilar to the 1944 Education Act, they suggested that schools be established in all parishes, where ‘all Children whether, Poor or Rich, be taught gratis’, funded by a universal tax on rents and land. [4] In contrast to the 1944 education system, however, this was a universal education programme with a distinct ideological agenda. No Dissenters were to be allowed to teach in these schools, and any hopeful school masters would need to be examined and licensed by a bishop. [5]

Such a move, the author believed, would ‘cure the Diseases of Church and State’ by remedying a situation in which

All our Mischiefs proceed from little Schools, wherein Preside Ignorant School-Mountebanks, Psalm-singers, Mechanick Pretenders, False Brethren of the Church, or Flat Dissenters, who under pretence of teaching School, screw themselves into honest and well-meaning People, and so corrupt both Parents and Children.[6]

This author feared that religious groups opposed to the Establishment view of Church and State would expand their influence over education, corrupting children, and ultimately the nation itself.

I do not wish to draw direct parallels between eighteenth-century Protestant Dissenters and modern-day Islamists. Undoubtedly, there were some Dissenting school-masters propagating highly unorthodox views, but the vast majority were intelligent, reasonable, and entirely loyal to the state. In contrast, ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ revealed genuinely malicious intent by a small number of individuals hoping to gain influence over children.

There are, nevertheless, parallels in the rhetoric surrounding both episodes. In an attempt to fight against the indoctrination of youth, our eighteenth-century author deliberately crafted a vision of a rigid and ideologically narrow education system against which the state’s vision of education could set itself. Today, whilst the government insists that ‘British values’ are centred around ideas of tolerance, there is the danger that a statutory requirement to teach a prescribed set of values within our schools could in itself undermine tolerance, and offer a narrow vision of what it means to be British. It is unlikely that our teachers will ever have to be licensed by a bishop, but the notion that they might be expected to conform to a prescribed idea of ‘Britishness’ doesn’t seem so absurd. In a time that (unlike the eighteenth century) claims to unequivocally support tolerance, that seems rather strange.


[1] Peter Clarke, Report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools arising from the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter, July 2014.

[2] “Trojan horse report: All schoolchildren to be taught British values from September, says Michael Gove”. Telegraph, 9 June 2014

[3] Billa vera: or, the natural way to prevent occasional conformity, and effect a union in religion, London: 1703, p. 2.

[4] Ibid, p. 13.

[5] Ibid, p. 11.

[6] Ibid, p. 20.

Image – English cross-stitch alphabet sampler in monochrome worked by Elizabeth Laidman, 1760. Photo by Nick Michael – Private collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1670415.

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