What happens in a secular schooling system when, free from ‘the shackles’ of elected local government, parents exercise the choice the state gives them and their school chooses to reflect its community’s aspirations in the way it caters for the “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” of children? What happens when the community that school serves is predominantly Muslim, even though the school is not a faith-based school?
The intriguing ‘Trojan Horse’ school debacle in Birmingham is set to run and run. What is extraordinary about it, however, is the fact that although it says more about the unmanageable shambles that is schooling provision in the country right now, than about Islamic extremism in schools, however that’s defined, there is very little comment about this aspect of the whole sorry saga.
The first and most obvious thing to be said is that Park View School is an Academy, a Mathematics and Science Academy, in Alum Rock, a socially deprived area of Birmingham with a largely Muslim population. As such, it enjoys the unrestricted powers of any other Academy, including the right to set its own curriculum and not follow the National Curriculum. It is not a denominational school like the Jewish, Roman Catholic and Church of England schools to be found in many a city in England, but its student population is predominantly Muslim.
The second obvious thing to be said is that, like any predominantly Christian community, people who call themselves Muslim do not all believe the same things, behave in the same ways or have the same expectations of schooling. Christians vary widely in their views about salvation, gender and gender subordination, wealth, social justice, sex education, sexual conduct, same sex relationships, crime and punishment, and much else besides. So do Muslims.
“The school’s first Ofsted inspection report on 7 March – widely circulated within the government – made a series of relatively minor recommendations, and criticised the school’s leadership. Among the recommendations it made were calls for “improving systems for safeguarding students” that included “strategies to ensure students are safe from extremism” and a review of monitoring of the school’s equality policies. The inspectors also said that the school needed to review its programmes for “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development”, to ensure that “students are well prepared for life in modern democratic Britain and a global society, and extremist behaviour prevented”.
That inspection was triggered by an anonymous letter, unsigned and undated, which was sent to Birmingham City Council and the Birmingham Mail in November 2013, claiming that ‘Islamist extremists’, including Tahir Alam, chair of governors at Park View School, were plotting to take over a number of schools in Birmingham, including Park View.
Despite the fact that Birmingham City Council launched its own investigation into the claims, Michael Gove saw fit to commission Peter Clarke, former head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism squad during the July 7 bombings in London, to investigate the allegations of extremist infiltration.
Meanwhile, teachers were continuing to teach and children to learn at Park View School, including students preparing for public examinations and making decisions about university places. All of this in the media spotlight and with stories being told and comments and assumptions being made about their school that effectively projected it as a training camp for tomorrow’s terrorists and a threat to national security.
So, let me try and place all this in the wider context of the configuration of schooling provision in the country and consider the nature of four interventions, i.e., of Michael Gove, Ofsted, the shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt and Tim Boyes, headteacher at Queensbridge School in Birmingham.
Michael Gove (pictured above)
Gove has so far provided no evidence that he considered the possibility that the allegations made against Park View School and Tahir Allam might be vexatious, vengeful and motivated by Islamophobia. There is certainly no reported evidence that he made any attempts to canvass the views of the students and parents at Park View and establish what their experience of what is taught and the way the school is run and managed might tell the country, or to obtain personal statements from individual members of staff who facilitate children’s learning at that school and interact with the community day by day. Nor did he appear to ask himself what was so fundamentally flawed about the Ofsted monitoring and inspection process that that watchdog could come up with such conflicting assessments of the performance and effectiveness of the same school within days of each other.
Gove wants to ‘set schools free’; he wants us to trust in the assumed intrinsic capacity of the private sector to fix public services and put right all failings, irrespective of context and cause; above all, he wants us to ignore and not pose the fundamental questions about purpose, values, public accountability and responsibility, responsibility especially for ensuring that each child receives their educational entitlement and support in reaching their potential.
Schooling in this country has been characterised by the structured omission of issues to do with ideology, exploitation, discrimination, exclusion, inequality and social injustice. But, schooling in this country is also assumed to be organised in compliance with International Human Rights Standards, especially:
- The best interests of the child must be paramount (Article 3)
- Children have a right to be heard (A.12)
- Children have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of, for example, class, race, ethnicity, religion/faith or gender (A.2) (OR because of the failings of either parent)
- Children have the right to be protected from all forms of violence. They must be kept safe from harm. They must be given proper care by those looking after them. (A.19)
There was a time not very long ago when elected government was considered to play a crucial role in guaranteeing the defence of the individual against invidious forces that do not necessarily respect the rights and entitlements of those who cannot fend for themselves, or who constitute the excluded in society. This crucial role was discharged particularly in the context of the provision of school places in local authority areas. Here, parents looked to their local education authority to help secure an appropriate, age-related place for their child, irrespective of religion/faith, ethnicity, special educational needs, or lack of English.
Equal Opportunities Policies and the anti-discrimination legislation that undergirded those policies were meant to inform the practices of LEAs no less than of individual schools. LEA inspection and advisory services were able to develop a close working relationship with schools and to monitor their performance in safeguarding children’s and parents’ rights and in promoting a learning culture based on equality, fairness and respect. If things started to go awry, the LEA would invariably intervene to give support and guidance and to demand corrective action as necessary. Public accountability was delivered to the LEA as the elected representative body on behalf of parents.
The LEA could consult and decide upon a Local Curriculum that had regard to its demography, the aspirations of parents, the societal challenges they faced and the needs of the labour market, such that students could be assisted to equip themselves with the values and social skills that make them fit for living in civil society and with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that make them employable.
Schools were considered to have a duty:
- to ensure that irrespective of the disposition or beliefs of parents, students and young people are provided with the knowledge, understanding and skills to be at ease with and respect themselves, so that they could respect others, especially people who are not like themselves;
- to assist the learner in developing self confidence and situating him/herself in the learning community and in society as an active citizen;
- to ensure that teachers were engaging with young people’s personal, spiritual, social and emotional development as well as assisting them in developing political literacy;
- to ensure that every student embraced the responsibility to act in a manner that helps to make the school a place where all can feel valued and can learn and teach in safety;
The school would thus demonstrate the purpose and intent of pursuing an equality and diversity agenda and making combating discrimination and social exclusion and promoting equity, diversity and community cohesion organic to what it does as its core business, rather than it being seen as yet another set of challenges overburdened teachers are expected to meet. By doing so, it would adopt a holistic and coherent approach that places the Public Sector Equality Duty and the Community Cohesion requirements at the very core of its function as school and to assisting children and families to relate to the globalised world around them.
With sound leadership and with the support of staff, students and families, this approach places schooling in the driving seat of education for democratic citizenship and enshrines the principle that empowering the individual to develop his/her capacity to act in a self-directing way and to take collective action with others in pursuit of change is at the very heart of the process of managing and expanding a democratic culture. It also joins students and parents in a partnership to raise standards, eliminate educational disadvantage and the social exclusion that is a concomitant of it.
Let me be the first to admit that, clearly, not all LEAs let alone schools got that right. But, as I say in my paper, Academies -v- Schooling Provision in the Public Sphere:
Successive governments have chosen to apply neoliberal arguments and to leave it to the market to deliver educational ‘entitlement’ to those who demonstrate that they have not forfeited that entitlement by failing to operate within the rules. Academies and the licence given to them over admissions, funding, curriculum, etc., are a logical extension of that education philosophy.
So, in the case of Park View School, someone only had to shout without even declaring who they are: ‘Islamist extremists on the loose and they are coming after a school in your area’ for the Secretary of State to conjure up a St Trinian’s army of budding Al Qaeda operatives, kitted out in hijabs and with a supply of burkas for the male students among them.
Peter Clarke, the counter-terrorism czar, is dispatched with indecent haste to deal with the situation and establish the extent of extremist infiltration, not just in Birmingham, but in other cities with similarly large Muslim populations and schools serving those communities.
Hard working staff and students at Park View, as well as their families and community have had to endure media intrusion daily and investigators from Birmingham City Council, Ofsted, the counter-terrorism czar and the West Midlands Police Counter-terrorism Unit in a process that many describe as the ‘blighting’ of their school, the same school which Ofsted judged to be ‘outstanding’ and which won praise from its Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw (pictured below) only two years ago.
Michael Gove, under the pretext of responding to anonymous claims in an unsigned letter, appears to be seeking to establish grounds for extending the ‘Prevent Terrorism’ agenda to schools with a certain percentage of Muslim students. British-born school students, teachers and governors belonging to this particular faith group are therefore likely to be subject to surveillance in much the same way as they are in further and higher education.
Mr Gove presumably makes no connection between this saga, the xenophobic support for UKIP that we witnessed in the latest elections and the British Social Attitudes survey results regarding the percentage of people in the population who describe themselves as ‘racist’.
The report of Ofsted’s inspection of Park View School and of another 21 Birmingham schools thought to be the target of the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot is eagerly awaited and is expected some time soon.
Ofsted is believed to have carried out two inspections of Park View School on 7 March and 17 March respectively. The Guardian reports that relatively minor recommendations in its first report could give way to more serious findings in its later report with the possibility of an assessment that would put the school in ‘special measures’.
Were the latter to prove correct, it would be an utterly disgraceful way of treating the staff, students and families of Park View School. If the 7 March inspection was carried out in response to the anonymous letter, why was that inspection not conducted in a thorough enough manner to allow Ofsted to come to whatever conclusions it felt to be warranted and enable the school to continue focusing upon children’s learning and to give support to them and their families in the wake of the media circus? How was the school expected to perform normally in the face of such uncoordinated and unprecedented crisis intervention in full public gaze?
On Saturday 31 May, the Birmingham Mail carried a report with the headline: “Trojan Horse investigation: School head warned over signs of extremism four years ago“.
The Birmingham Mail reported that Tim Boyes, head of Queensbridge School in Moseley, had warned the government that some Birmingham pupils were showing signs of extremism four years before city schools were linked to the Trojan Horse controversy and had highlighted schools which had allegedly suffered ‘interference’, but that his ‘concerns were seemingly never acted upon’.
Mr Boyes is reported as having given “a powerful presentation to Lord Hill, then a schools minister in Education Secretary Michael Gove’s department. He had described a ‘bloodless coup’ at one Birmingham school and ‘an alliance to destabilise the head’ at another”. The Mail continues:
Now the Mail can reveal that during the meeting Mr Boyes raised fears some pupils were showing potential for extremism in their artwork and also highlighted claims of ‘racist, aggressive and disrespectful behaviour’ by students AND staff.
In his presentation he also said that the Secretary for State for Education should have the power to require the removal of those deemed not ‘fit and proper persons’ from academies or free schools – with the possibility of funding being withdrawn if they refused to comply.
Yet the Department for Education apparently failed to act on the fears until this year, after a document was sent to Birmingham City Council and our newspaper detailing Operation Trojan Horse, an alleged plot by hardline Muslims to take over some city schools through dirty tricks campaigns.
The Mail claimed that during the meeting with Lord Hill, Mr Boyes had highlighted the schools where concerns had been raised about alleged ‘interference’.
‘He told the BBC this week: “Back in 2010, I had a whole series of colleagues, other head teachers, who were reporting concerns about governance and things that weren’t going well in their schools. Over 20 years… tensions and politics have exploded and as a result head teachers have had nervous breakdowns, they’ve lost their jobs, schools have been really torn apart.
“Now the Mail can reveal one section of his presentation was entitled Examples of Evidence of Non-Violent Extremism which highlighted school ‘‘art work (doodles or graffiti) that appears to glorify violence or extremism’’.
The head teacher also talked of “explicit or implicit anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Hindu words or behaviour by pupils or teachers’’ as well as ‘‘aggressive or disrespectful behaviour by pupils or teachers’’.
It is understood that in another section of the talk entitled Parallel Lives in Schools and Neighbourhoods, Mr Boyes spoke about ‘‘declining white population’’ and ‘‘highly segregated wards’’ ‘.
The Mail reports that My Boyes allegedly ‘highlighted fears some schools were not properly preparing children for mainstream British life’.
Mr Boyes explained last night:
“There is a problem of communities that effectively live in ghettoes and in a free market can shape schooling to subtly not prepare children for mainstream British life because they perpetuate a ghettoised experience in schooling.”
“The changing make-up of the city’s schools population was revealed by the Mail last October when we told how less than a third of all pupils are now white, with Asian students making up almost half of the total classroom population. Mr Boyes, who is one of about 800 national leaders of education, concluded his briefing with Lord Hill by saying the Education Secretary should have the power to force the removal of individuals from involvement with schools who were not deemed a ‘fit and proper person’”.
This is an intriguing report.
Students showing ‘potential for extremism’ sounds very much like the old ‘Sus’ laws that enabled the police to criminalise and courts to imprison hundreds of young black males on ‘suspicion of being about to commit an arrestable offence’. I cannot believe that Tim Boyes is suggesting that teachers lack the capacity to deal with students’ art work that, rightly or wrongly, is deemed to be problematic.
Mr Boyes fear that ‘some schools were not properly preparing children for mainstream British life’ appears to correlate with his Parallel Lives in Schools and Neighbourhoods thesis. Mr Boyes is said to have spoken to Lord Hill about ‘‘declining white population’’ and ‘‘highly segregated wards’’.
I do not know how long Mr Boyes has worked in the West Midlands, but if these statements attributed to him are correct, he appears to have very little understanding of the demography and schooling arrangements and practices in parts of England that are not large cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester. In such areas, communities, middle class no less than working class and all white, ‘effectively live in ghettoes and in a free market make sure they shape schooling to subtly not prepare children for mainstream British life because they perpetuate a ghettoised experience in schooling.” Evidence is that when would-be teachers leave those communities and those schools and go and do their teacher training, 57% of them say that they do not feel equipped to go and teach in an inner city school that are likely to be full of students from those other ‘ghettoes’.
And even in conurbations such as Greater London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, there is an increasing number of white ‘ghettoes’ locked in behind walls and gates and whose children know nothing but ‘a ghettoised experience’ in schooling until they go to University.
Mr Boyes appears to subscribe to the view that ‘ghettoes’ are the preserve of working class and poor people from ethnic backgrounds other than white. From his construction, the ‘declining white population’ in inner-city Birmingham is caused by black people ‘segregating’ themselves rather than it being the result of that age-old phenomenon, White Flight. Clearly, in his eyes, black people in the majority in any ward or city is problematic, while a majority of white people in most parts of England is as it should be.
Mr Boyes appears to be forgetting the simple fact that most of the black people he is expressing anxieties about are British, with expectations, entitlements and responsibilities as citizens just like any group of white people.
For all the above reasons, the response of Michael Gove, no less than that of Tim Boyes, is decidedly racist and Gove, particularly, is failing in his duty to the students and families at Park View School and at all the other schools that have been put through inspection and investigation based upon both racist and Islamophobic assumptions.
Tristram Hunt (pictured above)
The Guardian, the Birmingham Mail and the BBC have all reported that Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has written to Mr Gove demanding answers to questions about the meeting Tim Boyes had with the department of education in 2010.
In his letter to Michael Gove, Mr Hunt is said to have asked ‘what action was taken regarding the information presented by Tim Boyes and whether the department had received warnings from any other sources’.
Mr Hunt is reported as concluding his letter by observing:
“These are very serious allegations coming from a senior and highly respected head teacher. The failure to act will undermine the confidence of other heads to raise concerns with ministers. “It is not acceptable for head teachers in schools in our country to become the target for radical hardliners wanting to infiltrate our school system.”
Hunt, no less than Gove, appears to miss the point completely with respect to academies and who governs them, the impossibility and undesirability of Secretaries of State and their Ministers attempting to micro-manage them from Whitehall and the right of black parents to exercise choice in respect of schools’ ethos in relation to their community’s educational aspirations.
The fact that Hunt himself, representing the Labour Party, seemingly failed to own any share of the responsibility for this shambolic situation, or to challenge some of the statements and assumptions made by Tim Boyes is evidence in my view that the country as a whole and Britain’s black population in particular cannot expect any action from the Labour Party to roll back the damage they and their academies programme have done to our schooling system.
Our hope is that Muslim communities across the country, supported by progressive forces amongst students, parents and teachers would mobilise and send a strong message to Gove and Hunt that they would not be allowed to disrupt children’s education, blight their schools and mar their life chances and career prospects by their knee jerk, mindless and racist preoccupation with ‘Islamic extremism’ and the ‘war against terror’.
Picture (home): “School’s Out” by saf eins (Flick – CC BY-NC 2.0)