It was government policy that seeded the ground for the Trojan Horse schools controversy argues Nick Wright
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery then Britain’s established Church, it Catholic and dissenting co-religionists – and those strands of Judaism that embrace the patronage of the state in providing education tailored to their theological preferences – are a model for the Muslim Council of Britain.
It was this Council, according to the Daily Telegraph that considered a lengthy document which sketched out a scheme to imbue the Birmingham’s hitherto secular state schools with an Islamic ethos.
Predictably, the discovery of this ‘plot’ by Islamists fed a toxic cocktail of media tropes and populist misconceptions. Every authority; state and secular, confessional and professional, found a voice in the affair. The more prosaic issues of school improvement, curriculum content and governance took temporary second place to an avalanche of anxiety about terrorism.
The then education secretary, Michael Gove, imposed a ministerial fiat that all schools in Britain should teach the distinctive British values of fairness and tolerance and backed his command of these virtues with a threat to ban teachers whose efforts to prevent extremism were insufficiently muscular.
The prime minister leapt to the defence of the realm — and its children — and convened a meeting of the Extremism Task Force. A ministerial conclave then deployed its ultimate deterrent, the threat of an unannounced Ofsted inspection.
Even this was deemed insufficient and thus the DfE commissioned the former head of the Metropolitan Police counterterrorism command to investigate.
In the tail spin of media coverage an undercover Daily Mirror reporter searched out a Muslim chair of governors who dutifully spin a stream of rather conventional prejudices about the role of women and the education of girls mixed in with crude anti-colonialist rhetoric. Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph, the Mail and Express fed their ever vigilant audiences with a familiar mix of Islamaphobia and anxiety about school standards.
What are the facts?
In March this year the BBC reported that a letter had surfaced suggesting that Islamists were scheming to secure the appointment of head teachers in four Birmingham schools and that other schools — each with substantial numbers of Muslim pupils — could be targeted.
The letter reportedly encouraged parents to complain about forced acts of Christian worship, mixed physical education and sex education.
It suggested that schools, when captured, should seek academy status the better to construct a curriculum independent of the local authority.
The authenticity of the letter was swiftly challenged with the Times calling it a ‘crude forgery’ and the Guardian reporting that it was ‘widely regarded as a fake.’
Other sources suggested that because the letter contained obvious idiocies (it alleged a campaign to remove a head teacher who had been dismissed two decades earlier) that it was the work of either a provocateur or an insider whistleblower.
However, the letter, fake or not, struck a chord and Ofsted quickly began an inspection of 21 schools where, it was suggested, a takeover was underway.
The provenance of the original letter quickly became irrelevant as the various authorities published their conclusions.
First off, the government’s counter terrorism expert was particularly critical of Birmingham City Council – finding that it had been aware of ‘extremist activities’ for some time, failed to deal systematically with the issue – and had focussed instead on ‘community cohesion’.
His report found evidence of ‘extremism’ including anti-Western, anti-US and anti-Israel rhetoric, a conspiracy mind set, intolerance and sectarian attitudes to other religions and strains of Islam.
In some schools he reported, the curriculum had been narrowed to limit language teaching, music, art and drama while some governors tried to limit PSHE to approved topics.
Ofsted and the Schools Funding Agency conducted parallel investigations and found evidence that 21 schools were the target of an ‘organised campaign’.
The investigations were speedy and comprehensive. Of the schools inspected five were found to be inadequate and were put into special measures.
Ofsted imposed section 8 monitoring inspections on fifteen schools and nurseries while five schools were found innocent of risks of extremism and governance. Eleven were rated as requiring improvement.
Even before its publication the Ofsted reports attracted controversy.
Birmingham’s former chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, along with twenty education experts.
warned that the manner in which the investigation was conducted risked compromising Ofsted’s political independence: “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.
“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. This is uncharted territory, with Ofsted 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.”
And after its publication the controversy continued while the notion of an ‘Islamising agenda’ touched a raw nerve among those with a stake in faith schooling.
Both Anglican and Catholic opinion were quick to repudiate the conclusion by the British Humanist Association that a wider review of the place of religion in state-funded schools was needed.
Commenting on the existence of maintained religious schools the BHA argued that: ‘While these situations are allowed to continue, it is no surprise that some people of another faith will take existing schools of no religious character and effectively treat them as their own faith schools.’
The Church of England’s new head of education responded saying: ’Many of the schools in Birmingham identified were not schools with religious characters, and are not faith schools.’
Echoing this the Catholic Education Service ingeniously argued that the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ plot was not connected to faith schools: ‘Many people are confusing extremism with religion. It should be clarified that the alleged problems in Birmingham concern a number of community schools not faith schools. Catholic schools and other faith schools should not be penalised in response to these allegations’ it said.
Equally ingeniously the BHA took up Michael Gove’s theme of tolerance and argued that: ‘It is vital that every young person receives a broad and balanced education in an environment that is free from discrimination on the basis of religion, gender or sexual orientation and that prepares them for life in wider British society. It is only if schools provide such an education in such an environment that we can live in a society where everyone is treated equally with tolerance and respect. Park View has been failing to do this, and we are pleased that that is now set to change.’
The Ofsted reports reward a close reading. Contrary to the more hysterical accounts of their contents, its broad sweep highlights practices and policies that elicit both strong criticism and a measure of praise. Hardly a saga of failing inner city schools the Ofsted judgements included examples of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ performance.
The school at the centre of the controversy, Park View, as did others, lost its earlier ‘outstanding’ rating. It was deemed newly ‘inadequate’ with the strongest criticism over the failure of the academy ‘to raise students’ awareness of the risks of extremism’.
Discounting the more apocalyptic interpretations of these facts – as detailed in the various investigations – it became clear that, over a period of years, schools in Birmingham (and perhaps elsewhere) had acquired head teachers, staff and governors with affiliations to a particular interpretation of Sunni Muslim beliefs.
Indeed, the counterterrorism specialist’s report, with exemplary vigilance, included diagrammatic representations of social network dialogues between teachers and others. The matrix of contacts and affiliations of one Tahir Alam, described as ‘the linkages between key members of Park View Educational Trust, intolerant discussion groups and schools where an Islamising agenda has been evident’ followed the conclusion that ‘Park View School sought to export it’s Islamising blueprint.’
The critical issue here is not whether or not parents, teachers, heads and governors had distinctive religious beliefs. The policy of state support for schools of a religious character is long standing, until relatively recently largely unchallenged, is sanctioned by custom, celebrated by politicians and faith leaders of many stripes and enshrined in law.
The state explicitly sanctions a religious foundation to school life with the legal obligation for the school day to begin with a collective act of Christian worship. While it may be argued that this is, in practice, regarded as optional in a wide range of schools, including some that are nominally faith schools, in other schools, including those that are nominally secular, religious ideas, beliefs and practices play a central role.
Both the academy programme of the present government and its free schools initiative are grounded in the presumption that distinctive belief systems could constitute the founding ethos of schools. It is not surprising that faith communities, especially those more recently arrived from our former empire and not yet enjoying the sectional privileges of the schismatic Christian and Jewish traditions, should take the government at its word.
The key issue is whether or not the educational experience of the children was compromised in these schools and, beyond this, whether the inspection regime – and the school improvement strategies that flow from it – is adequate for a fragmented school system in which competing conceptions of curriculum and governance exist.
Ofsted found inadequacies in the work of almost all the key actors. Governing bodies, Birmingham Council, school leaderships – all were criticised.
Given that – in scale and character– its Birmingham investigations were a marked departure from its standard modus operandi it is striking how little the Ofsted reports reflect on the adequacy of its method.
The dramatic reversal of its earlier categorisation of schools central to the investigation – from outstanding to inadequate – is unexplained.
Perhaps the answer lies in the political steer that government and the media imposed. But teachers, school leaders, governors, local authorities and school improvement professionals are entitled to expect a more consistent and rigorous regime than one so clearly the product of expediency and the political moment.
In many ways the government, and in lock step Ofsted, are caught in a web of contradictions. The most striking expression of this was the spat between the Home Secretary Theresa May and education secretary Michael Gove over their competing claims for overlordship of the government handling of this controversy.
The government’s centralising drive, coupled with the fragmentation of the school system and the diminution of the local authority role, finds its clearest expression in the great reliance placed on the inspection regime. Ofsted has proven especially responsive to the political imperative to assess teaching effectiveness, school leadership and student achievement by reference to performance data.
Running counter to this the government’s own rhetoric places cultural values and notions of citizenship central to the curriculum. The curriculum is thus a key element in the transmission of common values, systems of knowledge and values yet the compulsion to arrange schools in a forced hierarchy of performance mitigates against a balanced and objective assessment of progress in the individual school or the development of strategies tailored to the particular school and the local context.
Ofsted’s investigations of the 21 Birmingham schools produced detailed conclusions about the distinctive regimes within particular schools whilst en passim revealing substantial differences.
They show, in the absence of a decisive local authority role, how the composition and performance of school governing bodies can become a critical issue when transparency and oversight is lacking.
This suggests that a more productive approach would be to mobilise the deeper reservoirs of local knowledge and understanding about performance and progress; attitudes and aspiration, that exist within and between every school and community.
Contemporary experience shows how local knowledge – married to professional standards and stable cadres of school leaders, inspectors and advisors – is a precious resource easily dissipated and difficult to reconstitute.
The approach of the trade union that represents school improvement professionals, theAspect Group of the professionals union Prospect – that local authorities, with their established systems of financial supervision, accountability and personnel management – are the most sensible mechanisms for mobilising resources has found something of an echo in Opposition policy and seems set to become an election issue.
Ed Miliband was quick to defend Birmingham Council. The Labour leader said schools are paying the price for going without ‘proper oversight’ and that education secretary Michael Gove was failing schools by not establishing proper local supervision: ‘We should have a local director of schools who can actually provide proper oversight of schools.
‘Michael Gove seems to be thinking you can provide this from Whitehall. He is proving he can’t’ he said.
This was echoed by the NUT which said: ‘… if schools sever their connection with a local authority, the levers to monitor or effect change available at local level are lost.
‘What is clearly needed is local authorities with powers to monitor and support schools, clear national agreement on the importance of PSHE and the need to promote community cohesion and the aim to create schools in which individuals feel at ease with themselves and are respectful of difference.’
The ATL criticised the government for weakening oversight of schools by reducing local authorities’ involvement in education and centralising control to the DfE
The NAS/UWT said: ‘Ofsted dropped the ball when it stopped inspecting how schools tackle race equality and when it was no longer required to inspect how schools meet their duty with regard to community cohesion.
‘The government has fragmented the school system, removed local democratic accountability and has conferred excessive school autonomy onto a school governance system that it is widely accepted is not fit for purpose.’
Shadow education secretary Tristam Hunt criticised the DfE for ‘systemic failings’ adding that
given that some of these schools had received positive Ofsted ratings in the not too distant past there were also questions for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate.
He called for an overhaul of the inspection criteria to put in place a fifth criteria was put in place that for schools to be judged ‘outstanding’ they should deliver a “broad and balanced” curriculum.
Governments of all complexions pay tribute to the principle of parental and community engagement, but this, combined with school autonomy, creates expectations that can contradict public policy.
Academies, like Park View, unconstrained by local authority control and directly accountable to the secretary of state, inevitably acquire a distinctive character while their internal regimes, equally inevitably, express the preferences of key actors on aspects of the curriculum, selection, staff appointments and governance.
The national context is one where the inspection regime privileges attainment and results measured against a range of common criteria but where autonomous schools inevitably respond to powerful incentives to develop an individual character.
In Birmingham, it seems, the government’s own policy has functioned as a Trojan Horse, taking values it now finds inconvenient, into the interstices of Britain’s deconstructed school system, there to flourish until checked.
This is a version of the article that appears in Improvement magazine published by the Aspect Group of Prospect
Ofsted Report http://tinyurl.com/nurrnqm
Counter terrorism report http://tinyurl.com/luntbfp
Muslim Council of Britain on Trojan Horse letter http://tinyurl.com/k75rkdu
Education and Muslims: End this Witch-Hunt of British Muslims http://tinyurl.com/l837649