2014 07 – Editorial

‘British Values’ – A Trojan Horse?

A new terror now stalks the land. This is nothing less than the Islamist takeover of school governing bodies with the aim of turning schools into nurseries for jihadis. This is what is alleged to have happened in Birmingham, leading to the re-inspection of a number of schools which have allegedly fallen under Islamist sway. These schools have been condemned, in a somewhat arbitrary way, for failing to protect children from extremism.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ furore has been a disaster for education in Birmingham and for the children in the schools affected. This is a city whose educational performance has greatly improved in recent years. The fuss about ‘Islamist Extremism’ in some Birmingham schools is without foundation. Michael Gove has disgracefully leveraged some concerns about the role of some governors in Birmingham schools into a grandstanding political performance directed against British Muslims. As Peter Oborne, political correspondent for the Daily Telegraph remarked, at a recent public meeting in Birmingham on the issue:

“I think it is unacceptable that there are things that can be said publicly about Muslims which can be said about no other communities and religions, and there is something sick about that and it is something that does need to be fought.”

So what is all this fuss about, apart from providing an ambitious politician with an opportunity to demonise a section of the population who find it difficult to hit back? At the heart of the issue lies the way in which British education is governed. Prior to 1988, local education authorities had wide-ranging powers over the financing of schools and their curriculum. They were also able to intimidate teachers into adopting fashionable methods of teaching that most teachers themselves often thought were harmful. It was evident that they were incapable of using these powers constructively and the Education Reform Act removed many of them. This does not mean, however, that local authorities should have no educational powers. The Birmingham case illustrates that they can be a force for good, even with very limited powers, by making use of local knowledge and mobilising local resources to bring about change.

As the powers of local authorities diminished, so that of school governors increased and in 1988 they gained substantial control over school budgets and the right to hire and fire teachers. Under Labour, Academy schools were set up. These, although funded by the public purse, are under the control of trusts who can appoint most of the governing body directly. They do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Most of the schools in the Birmingham row are academies. They key point to bear in mind is that the governors are lay officials, appointed by a trust, with wide-ranging powers to run schools and to determine their ethos. This was the set-up deliberately put in place by Labour and enthusiastically consolidated by the Coalition.

It is important to realise that the intention of the academy legislation was to remove schools from local authority control and to give it to whatever individual or clique was able to set themselves up as sponsors of schools. It is hardly surprising therefore that some of these cliques have a strong religious motivation. If the academy is situated in a religiously homogenous area and run by a trust with roots in the area, then it can be expected that some lay governors may wish to establish a religious ethos in the school, be it Muslim, Catholic, Jewish or whatever else. Indeed, it could be argued that this may be precisely one way in which to drive up academic standards, as appeared to have happened in the schools concerned. If, in the process, some teachers and heads found themselves out of sympathy with some of the policies promoted by some governors, then that is precisely what one would expect to happen in the academy school environment. It would hardly be anything to worry about if one supported the academy form of governance.

Gove however saw fit to turn this into a crisis of supposed extremism, where it was alleged (with no foundation whatsoever, apart from a forged anonymous letter) that a conservative Muslim ethos in some schools was tantamount to constituting a breeding ground for jihadis. Gove sent a security expert to Birmingham to look at the issue, to the dismay of the West Midlands police. In addition he has suborned the nominally independent school inspection body, OFSTED into providing the evidence that he requires to gain power over these schools and to start a campaign to ensure that ‘British values’ are taught in British schools. If he is consistent, he should be looking at all English schools with a predominance of religiously committed governors.

It should not be forgotten that the Academy legislation already gives the Secretary of State the power to appoint governors to academy school governing bodies, a power which was conspicuously not exercised in Birmingham.

Is there a convincing case for having governing bodies for schools? This is a moot point, but we are unlikely to see them abolished. In their favour it could be said that they provide a form of ‘industrial democracy’ in which the interested parties can form school policy and in which the workers in the school can have an important say. In addition, local authority, parental and community representation, when it is driven by individuals who wish to improve the quality of education, can have a galvanising effect on a culture of complacency and low expectations. However, the governing body structure that we now have is ill-equipped to do this. In particular, Academies have almost monolithic governance structures which makes it difficult for there to be genuine debate about school policy. The current crisis in Birmingham is in large part a reflection of dysfunctional academy governing bodies, where properly accountable decisions are not made.

The government’s policy on school governance is inconsistent and opportunistic. On the one hand it wants to micro manage what happens in schools as in the case of Birmingham. It also wants a highly intrusive and punitive control of schools and their performance through OFSTED. But it also wants freedom to innovate and to take risks and to let local communities have their head in education. While promoting a national curriculum for local authority schools, it allows academies and free schools to ignore it. If the national curriculum is a vehicle for high standards, consistency and fairness, it is hard to see why it should be compulsory for some and optional for others. While promoting good teaching, it has done its best to deprofessionalise the teaching force, even allowing academies and free schools to employ teachers who are not qualified. While promoting ‘faith schools’ they take fright when religious values they despise rear their head in community-based secular schools.

The whole affair may also signal the beginning of the end for OFSTED, the national educational inspection service for England. It is evident that it can be influenced by political rather than educational considerations and this was particularly blatant in the case of Birmingham. This perception will ultimately prove to be disastrous for OFSTED and we can expect that its decisions will be increasingly challenged and its verdicts will increasingly fail to command respect.

One final word about ‘British Values’. Although they are said to consist of democracy, tolerance, freedom etc., the Trojan Horse affair demonstrates some very different values on the part of Michael Gove: political interference in supposedly non political organisations, contempt for Islam and a willingness to play the ‘terror’ card in order to win political points. Let us not forget that values are not something that one can change like one’s clothes. We cannot expect people to adopt new values just because the government says they should. As Thomas Hobbes pointed out in the Seventeenth Century, the most we can do is to get subjects to passively acquiesce in the values proclaimed by the sovereign or supreme authority in the state. We doubt if any of the governors of Birmingham schools have problems with fair play, democracy, justice, liberty etc., but there could be problems if Gove or anyone else were to make arbitrary decisions about what constitute British values.

No doubt the electors of Birmingham will come to their own conclusions about the values of Gove and the party he represents next year.

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