Gove and Wilshaw will rue Operation Trojan Donkey

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Chaos and bitter resentment still feature strongly in Birmingham’s inner-city schools over what is being seen as a major Islamophobic attack on the Muslim population of the city. In fact, the resentment is growing as quickly as Gove and Wilshaw are retreating from the issue.

Schools are now investigating what legal redress they might have against Ofsted’s bizarre volte-face in their judgements on previously outstanding schools, and highly charged and highly politicised meetings are taking place all over the city to see how schools can protect themselves against the education department, Ofsted and Birmingham City Council.

As we have said elsewhere, the whole conspiracy theory, and the extraordinarily oppressive involvement of the state and the media in the affair, now looks even more like a moral panic – one that is remarkably lacking in substance.

Of the 21 schools investigated by the Trojan Donkey team, 16 were exonerated of anything significant at all. Of the remainder, the most that could be levelled against them is that they failed to protect children against extremists. How did they do this? Well, like the rest of the school cohort in England, they did not spend enough time and resources implementing the Prevent programme, which the government itself has been massively de-investing in.

The most serious complaint seeming to have some basis is that Muslim governors failed to fully appreciate the difference between faith and non-faith schools – or appreciate that Academies and Free Schools, although they are supposedly freer to represent the values of their communities, are not supposed to reflect their community values if they are Muslim.

The charges are thin, very thin, and to arrive at these, the Trojan Donkey team were asked to go back and revise their earlier judgements that nothing was really the matter with the schools. Ofsted’s position is now an unhappy one. If there are grounds for demoting these schools from ‘Outstanding’, or ‘Good with Outstanding features’, to ‘Requires Improvement’, why did their inspectors not see the issues on previous visits? Senior Tories and allies of Gove are asking this question and re-raising the issue of whether Ofsted is fit for purpose.

On the other hand, If they are kow-towing to government pressure, which everyone in inner-city Birmingham believes, who can ever trust their objectivity again?

For Gove, the appointment of a former head of Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command to lead one of the multiple enquiries and his unleashing of Ofsted on 21 schools now seems rash, intemperate and motivated by a personal agenda. He has previously written a book about the rise of political Islam as a major threat to Western values and culture, and called it ‘The Trojan Horse’.

There is also a political consensus in Westminster that this was part of his pitch for the ideological – and perhaps the actual – leadership of the Tory party. His use of Trojan Horse to try to undermine Theresa May, his archrival for the leadership, backfired badly when it was revealed that the DfE had been alerted previously by complainants and had, probably quite rightly, not taken them too seriously.

The scare has at least given Cameron the ability to propound the need for British values, and even attempt to define them. But what is curious about these definitions is that they leave out one of the most important aspects of our democratic liberalism which is the separation of the Church and the State. This is perhaps because, although this separation was completed first in the UK in the political and legal sphere, the lack of a written constitution allowed a pretty significant fudge in the 1944 Education Act, with the churches being allowed to run faith schools at the state’s expense.

Because so many of these schools are very good schools, and because they represented traditional religious streams, their anomalous position has never been very controversial, or at least controversial enough, to make their status politically problematic. However, as the Humanist Association, which forwarded the first complaints to the government and kicked the whole issue off, has pointed out, the lines between secular and non-secular streams of education are becoming increasingly blurred . The arrival of Gove’s academies and free schools has, contrary to our liberal values, meant that it is secularist education that is taking a pounding by Muslims and fundamentalist Christians alike.

Because church schools are so embedded in our system and generally do such a good job, and because the imposition of traditional British secularist values of education on Academies and Free Schools would undermine a sizeable chunk of their political raison d’être, the issue of the state funding any sort of non-secular education has become the issue that dare not speak its name.

~ Editorial, School Leadership Today, Volume 6.1


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