Blackpool, Faith Schools and the Weirding of English Education

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In the same week as Ofsted chief Wilshaw went public with dire warnings about small independent Islamic faith schools spreading homophobic and anti-Semitic views, and providing low quality education in sub-standard, unhealthy buildings, parents at a predominantly white state school in Blackpool made national news by resisting the take-over of their school by a government-supported Islamic Faith Academy Trust.

Unpicking this bald statement of fact clarifies the issues somewhat. But the deeper you look, the weirder it gets.

Blackpool secondary schools are definitely in trouble. They not only have the Northern Underperformance Syndrome, but they also seem to be able to turn good outcomes from their primary schools into complete reverse! Only half the secondary schools are good or better, which means half ‘Require Improvement’ or are in special measures, with Ofsted saying that 2,500 students in the town are receiving an inadequate education.

Blackpool has its own particular social problems, including a collapsing economy, a very high seaside itinerant population and a serious drugs problem. It also has a large white working class population, unalloyed with any significant ethnic communities of the sort that are helping raise academic achievement in other traditional working class areas across the UK.

Enter Blackpool Challenge, a government sponsored consortium with money to spend, similar to the London Challenge, with hopes that it will achieve the same turnaround as in London. There a set of under-performing secondary schools have been transformed into better-than-national-average schools. Part of the DfE’s plan has been to remove, through the help of the Regional Commissioner Editorial and academisation (an ugly word for an ugly process), the Blackpool Local Authority as rapidly as possible. The premise is that the authority has failed to achieve anything much so far – justifiable on the immediate evidence. One has to add, however, that the way the government has emasculated education authorities, it is hardly surprising that Blackpool hasn’t been able to act adequately.

Nicky Morgan is pushing the line that it was the ‘Academies What Done It’ in London, rather than the system of school collaboration and training, and the support of experienced local authority officers. It is one of the very big lies of 2015.

The Academy Trust recommended by the Regional Commissioner for the takeover of Blackpool‘s Highfield Humanities College is Tauheedul Education Trust (TET), which runs ten Muslim schools in the Midlands and the North West. ‘Recommended‘ is not quite the right word. The reluctant school governors were told by the Regional Commissioner that if they did not agree, they would be dismissed and replaced by an Interim Executive Board that would make the decision for them.

TET is not a group of fly-by-night dodgy Islamic schools – indeed, Ofsted has so far found its schools to be outstanding. But its commitment to ‘British values’ must be in some doubt. The charity that initiated the schools is committed to ‘advancing the Islamic Faith’; one of its schools in Blackburn was criticised for making its girls wear Islamic headdress in and out of class, and a Channel 4 documentary on primary schools in the same area filmed staff telling children that music and clapping were ‘Satanic’. The Trust has also hosted speakers banned by universities for saying that homosexuals were ‘worse than animals’.

The parents at Highfield were not informed of any this before they heard that the school was being taken over by an Islamic Trust on morning radio. Not surprisingly, they have reacted badly. The school is apparently struggling to cope with the behavioural response of the students, and their parents, ever since! One of those after-the-decision consultation exercises is now in process but parents are not taking it seriously.

Of course, the facts are that, under current legislation, the school governors do not have to consult the parents and, under the new Education and Adoption Bill, the Regional Commissioners won’t even have to consult governors before they determine a school’s future.

One has to ask if riding roughshod over parents, governors and elected local authorities so that unelected Commissioners can install unwanted Islamic Trusts on white secular schools is really representative of British values. What is the state doing installing Islamic Trusts to manage parts of secular state education system?

Regardless of the constitutional/democratic issues, is there any educational logic to the decision? One of the reasons Islamic schools do so well is that they are self-selecting, selective, and are nourished by a culture which prizes education and by parents that push their children to academically achieve. There is no evidence whatsoever that the effectiveness of TET applies outside these conditions. There is evidence that the support of parents is crucial in turning round failing schools, and that has gone for a burton in Blackpool.

Underlying all this weirdness is that, having destroyed local authorities, the government has to back Academy Trusts to do the job they once did and, in the North, there are not a lot Academy Trusts with any great capacity to manage strings of poorly performing schools. Frankly, there are not a lot anywhere. Hence the DfE giving TET and other Trusts with little to no school improvement infrastructure capacity-building grants in a bid to turn them into oppressive mini-authorities, and pushing them onto failing schools for all they are worth. Highfield is only the start, apparently, of the TET Offensive.

Evidence of failure is beginning to emerge in Academy Trusts up and down the country, but the government will continue to claim that they are the magic bullet that will transform education. Having destroyed so much civil and democratic infrastructure, it has no other choice.

Update: This article has been amended to reflect that Ofsted has inspected only four of the Trust's ten schools since their takeover, but all were found to be outstanding.

Image by Martyn Wright

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