Right wing scare story, or threat to our way of life?

Ofsted chief Wilshaw takes charge of Trojan Horse | BBC  According to an anonymous, leaked letter which may or may not turn out to be a hoax, there was a plan in Birmingham to oust governors from schools, and replace them with pro-Islamic governors. Ofsted’s chief Sir Michael Wilshaw is taking personal charge of investigations into the claims, according to the BBC, and the Department for Education has ordered its own review, as has Birmingham City Council. There have been reports of gender segregation, undermining of staff, and unfair treatment of non-Muslim pupils.

At the moment, everything that is known about this situation is either conjectural, or based on unsubstantiated claims and leaked documents.

In other words, there may have been a conspiracy or there may not have been, and, even if there were, it may well have had no actual impact on the way things are run.

I was a governor in two Birmingham schools for a total of six years, from 2000 to 2006. I don’t claim any special knowledge of this matter, but I share this information just as a little bit of background.

For those who have never been governors, there are a variety of types who sit on the governing body. There are staff representatives, parent representatives, and representatives appointed by the Local Authority, through one mechanism or another. Governing bodies meet several times per year, governors can serve a term of three years, which can be followed by another term, and must then stand down, and the governors have no executive authority in the school. They exist as a ‘critical friend’, supporting and at times challenging the school’s executive leadership. They tend to play an advisory role in the appointment of new staff, and a rather more substantial role in the appointment of a new head.

Now, here is the question: leaving aside the facts of the matter, to what extent should the make-up of governors and the overall ethos of a school reflect the community in which it is based? Parts of Birmingham are predominantly Muslim. Drive down the Alum Rock Road through Saltley towards Nechells, and you might imagine you were in a rather chillier version of the sub-continent.

Provided that they teach the national curriculum, should schools in predominantly Muslim areas be allowed to reflect a mainly Islamic ethos?

We can agree from the outset that the undermining of staff and unfair treatment of non-Muslim pupils — if such things do actually occur — are always unacceptable. At the same time, one would be hard-pressed to find a school where no teacher has felt undermined, and where no parent has believed that their child is being unfairly treated.

What about gender segregation? Given that parents are often desperate to get their children into single-sex schools, and that education policy permits the existence of such schools, is this really an issue?

 

All this is naturally fodder for the right wing press. Muslims conspiring to take over good British schools is a tag-line which must set a particular kind of journalist (and a particular kind of politician) drooling.

But what if it turns out that this is, at least partly, true? And what if the outcome is that people who wanted to take over ordinary schools discover they can’t, and found ‘Free’ schools anyway? This is exactly what Michael Gove’s policy on Free Schools is for. It allows Muslims to run Islamic schools, secularists to run secularist schools, and people who believe we should all eat more spinach to run schools with a soundly pro-Popeye catering policy.

Gove is the bête noir of the government as far as many Liberal Democrats are concerned, but the system he has created explicitly allows for the kind of result which is being described as the ‘Trojan Horse’.

Is he right? If not, why not?

For left-wingers, this sets up a dilemma of Kobayashi Maru proportions. On the one hand, free schools enable long-disparaged cultural groups to maintain their own identity in the face of the onslaught of militant Anglo-Saxonism. On the other hand, we seem to be handing over the keys of the kingdom to religious extremists.

For right-wingers, the horns of the dilemma are just as sharp: on the one hand, we are setting up a system where the free-market allows people to make libertarian decisions, and rewards those entrepreneurial enough to set up their own education micro-system. On the other hand, all of the fears of the xenophobes seem about to be realised in one go.

But what of centrists? Those of us who believe in a compassionate but liberal society, where the distinct needs of individuals and minority communities are met, but where the overall shape of society as a whole is also important, face a dilemma here as well.

We can certainly agree that anything being accomplished underhand — should it turn out that that was at all the case — is bad. However, the underhandedness, if it exists, merely clouds the issue. In the case of Govian Free Schools, should we support a distinctively Islamic ethos, or should we require everyone to conform to something which is culturally British, in a slightly apologetic post-Anglican sort of a way?

Those of us from a more social democrat background might say ‘we must support minority communities — mainstream society already makes it hard enough to maintain a cherished cultural identity’. But Liberals might then immediately respond that we are not talking about a generic cultural identity, such as Armenian or Nepalese. Islam is a powerful world cultural force, and, where Islam has come to the fore in a nation’s politics, the results have seldom been of the kind welcomed by democracies. Pragmatists might also argue that we ghettoise children by educating them in such a way, although other pragmatists might argue that if we do not allow for such schools, then they will form anyway as weekend and evening schools, where there is no supervision of the curriculum and no accountability to Ofsted.

I don’t have an answer to these questions. At least, I have an answer that satisfies me, but I doubt it will satisfy anyone else. On the one hand, I do see Free Schools as an opportunity for divisiveness. Britain has been falling behind some other nations in international league tables, but I don’t see the Free Schools solving that problem, and I don’t see that allowing people who have a non-mainstream view to supervise education has any genuine advantages. I am quite happy for existing faith schools to continue — they have learned over decades and in some cases centuries to be good players in the educational system, as a rule. Those that have not, or begin to stray from good citizenship, do need to be reviewed.

I am altogether less sanguine about encouraging parents to create education in their own image. I think it’s fair to say that no-one has ever definitively proven what a brilliant education looks like, except in that it allows inspirational teachers to get on with the business of teaching without too much interference, and allows teachers who are struggling to improve their skills without it having too much impact on the students.

That said, my instincts are integrative: wherever possible, children need to be exposed to a wide variety of cultural stimuli. Children from a cultural background which is particularly coherent need this more than others: they can gain strength from a solid community behind them, but they need to learn what other communities are like, lest they be disadvantaged by it in adult life.

 

What of the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’? It is often said that there is no smoke without fire, but anyone who has ever used a smoke machine can point out that this is no longer true. Sometimes there is a very little fire, and a very large amount of smoke. My sense, though, is that, should the allegations prove to be at all founded, it would behove journalists and politicians of all stamps to be careful. Certainly, supporters of Free Schools should consider whether the Free Schools themselves have not been created to legalise what is now merely an allegation. Equally, those who oppose them should ask themselves: if we create no outlet for a community to be represented in the schools that its children attend, are we not essentially forcing concerned parents to go down such a potentially underhand route?

The answer is not clear — but we can certainly do without the obvious headlines. From an outbreak of fear, no-one benefits.

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