The educational commentator Fiona Millar wrote the following article yesterday, before the publication of Ofsted’s reports into the Birmingham schools involved in the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations of undue and improper ultra- conservative Islamic influence (not “terrorism” or even “extremism”, by the way). Ofsted’s findings confirmed the essential truth of the allegations in the cases of several of the schools, five of which are to be placed in special measures.
At least Millar recognises the problems and dangers posed by allowing religion any influence in education - unlike the Graun‘s wretched apologist of an education editor, Richard Adams, who seems to wilfully misunderstand and misrepresent the issues at stake.
Miller takes particular exception to the appalling suggestion by the loathsome (Labour) MP Liam Byrne, that the solution to the problem is to turn these nominally secular schools into faith schools:
Why Liam Byrne is wrong about the “Trojan Horse” schools.
I am sure I am not alone in being unsure of what to think about the Birmingham “Trojan Horse “ story. I daresay we will find out more tomorrow when Ofsted publishes some of the reports into the schools implicated in the alleged plot to radicalise pupils in the area.
The key questions seem to me to be:
1. Have there been attempts to organise and pack the governing bodies of the schools? Someone with very good inside knowledge of the Birmingham situation told me that what has gone on in some of the schools is akin to the entryism of the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party in the 1980s
2. If there has been this sort of organisation – to what end? Is this because Islamic organisations want to radicalise pupils? Or is it, as some of the teachers and leaders in the schools have suggested, because they want to get involved and ensure that a previously marginalised and underperforming group get the best possible education? Some of the schools concerned do demonstrate outstanding achievement and progress for their pupils so there has been obviously been effective governance on one level.
3. But does the best education for this particular group of students, who make up almost 100% of the intake in some of the schools concerned, require a degree of “Islamification”.
Lee Donaghy , assistant principle of the Park View Academy, which is at the centre of the storm, was quoted in today’s Observer saying: “Part of raising achievement is schools acknowledging children’s faith and accommodating it”
But is that right? And if it is, how far should that accommodation go? I thought Tristram Hunt got it right on the Radio 4 Today programme yesterday. His message was that of course we want the highest standards, especially for previously underachieving ethnic groups, but we don’t want education excessively tailored to any one religious group in our state comprehensive schools and we do need better local oversight of schools than we have at present.
It has always been possible to “pack” governing bodies, even under the soon-to-be defunct stakeholder model of governance, which the recent Gove reforms to governing body constitutions seek to water down.
But there is no doubt that this process is made easier with independent state schools like academies and free schools, contracted to the Secretary of State but with little local accountability and with governing bodies effectively chosen by the sponsors.
As we have always said on this site, it is ridiculous to think that Whitehall can oversee thousands of schools from the centre, so some chickens may be coming home to roost for successive governments that have promoted this model of schooling.
But one of the more worrying reactions, that also emerged today, was that of local Birmingham Labour MP Liam Byrne who suggests in the same Observer story that Park View Academy should now be turned into a faith school to enable Muslim parents to bring up their children in the spirit of their faith.
This is dangerous talk in my view and I suspect that many of Mr Byrne’s comrades in the Labour Party would join me in robustly opposing the idea that we should be creating more faith schools. This would surely be the logical conclusion of allowing one school to change status for these reasons.
If we were not starting from here, the most sensible basis for any education system must be one in which state schools and religion are kept firmly apart, as they are in many other countries.
However the history of faith education in England is complicated. The 1944 Education Act brought existing church (mostly C of E and Catholic) schools into the state sector. These schools have long established roots, which are hard to dislodge and it is understandable that parents of other emerging religions can’t understand why they shouldn’t also have their own schools.
But this isn’t the solution to the problems being thrown up by single faith schools established under law or those that are being ushered in through the back door via the residential geography of some of our large cities.
If anything we should be trying to mix the intakes of our schools more subtly, opening more existing faith schools to non believers and to pupils of different faiths, and using local admissions criteria (which may involve banding and bussing to neighbouring schools) to get more balanced intakes in terms of social class, faith, ethnicity and ability in all schools. This, and the belief in a broad and balanced curriculum, is after all the underlying principle behind comprehensive education.
Last week I chaired a very interesting conference organised by the National Education Trust. It was opened by one of my heroes – the headteacher Geoff Barton who blogs, broadcasts and writes about current school issues. In his opening remarks Geoff stated plainly his pride in being the head of a “state, comprehensive school”. You don’t choose who you sit next to in life, he explained, therefore the best start in school must come in institutions that are open to all, regardless of background.
I agree, our school system is segregated enough as it is without introducing more silos. So whatever the Trojan Horse investigation throws up, I hope the idea of more single faith schools is swiftly shown the door. In its place we could have a sensible debate about admissions, the best way to achieve the comprehensive ideal and comprehensive intakes in all schools and what constitutes a basic, secular curriculum entitlement for all children.