Birmingham exposes the hollow heart of Conservative education policy

Britain is ill-served by its news media. There has been a growing kerfuffle about Muslim-dominated schools in Birmingham. The issues dominating this in media coverage are the extremism of some Muslims, and the explosive relations between the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which they assume is all to do with Mrs May’s leadership ambitions. This wantonly ignorant coverage is not only damaging community relations, but it failed to shine any light on the failure of the coalition’s Conservative-led education policy. This matters because this policy has been given nearly a free run in the media, and supported by papers, such as The Economist, that really should know better.

We must start with Mr Gove, who has been in post since the government was formed in 2010, and is one of the Conservatives’ big hitters. A journalist by profession, he has strong views on both education and extremism, which he has not hesitated to put into practice. Liberal Democrats have moderated some of his more extreme positions, but many suspect that the Lib Dem leadership (in contrast to its activists) sympathises with a lot of what Mr Gove is trying to do. Instead they have concentrated on their own pet policy, the Pupil Premium.

At the heart of Mr Gove’s policy is the idea that education should be run as a quasi-market, driven by parental choice, and without the need for much in the way of government direction – rather in the way the private sector does. Schools are being progressively pushed into being “Academies” independent of local authority control, and new Academies, “Free Schools”, are being established without much of the obstructive bureaucracy that would have strangled many of them at birth under the previous regime. These Academies were not subject to the National Curriculum, though they were subject to inspection by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, which focuses on a narrow set of core subjects (literacy and numeracy – with “behaviour” thrown in to satisfy conservative prejudices). The idea was that bad schools would fail to attract pupils, and so they would end up being closed, or management changed. Competition would impose discipline on the schools, and the whole thing would be more democratic because parental choice would not be intermediated by busybody officials, elected and otherwise.

Two other themes ran alongside this. One was the idea that existing education was not based enough on factual learning, with too much emphasis on wishy-washy “skills” and mushy “values”. Mr Gove recalled the curriculum of old-fashioned private schools and selective state grammar schools, which educated most off Britain’s elite. A second was a distrust of educational experts and officials, who Mr Gove took to referring to as “The Blob”, who watered down and undermined the reform process. The “Blob” was progressively dismantled.

In this mix we should mention faith schools. The Birmingham row does not involve faith schools directly, which has led a number of, excessively defensive, faith school supporters to claim that they are a irrelevant. But they are heavily bound up in the consequences of the row. Faith schools were not a strong element of Mr Gove’s ideas. They were rather an enthusiasm of the previous Labour government, who, it must be added, started the whole process of setting up independent Academies. Britain’s state schools have always included those run by religious foundations, in particular the Church of England in (rather obviously) England. These were joined by Catholic schools. Under Labour these were extended to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and no doubt other foundations. The Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair (a Catholic convert) had the idea that such faith schools gave children a solid moral grounding. Labour generally found that it helped their clientalist relationship with ethnic minority communities. These schools have been given a great deal of freedom to run themselves along their chosen lines. So long as you keep giving us good test scores and exam results, the suggestion was, we don’t care how you do it.

Finally in this background exposition, I need to mention Muslim extremism. Terrorist groups have successfully recruited a number of young British Muslims, and they have carried out a number of acts of violence both in this country and abroad, in such places as Syria. It is considered my many to be the biggest security threat the country faces. These extremists have very conservative instincts, such as believing in the veiling of women, but they tend to be converts and not very conversant with the actual teachings of Islam. Their extremism is fuelled by a general feeling of rejection and alienation.

In the public eye however, these young extremists have become tangled up with the conservative views of many Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. These are horrified by what they see as the laxity of Western moral values, and do not want their children to be corrupted by them. They share many of the conservative instincts of their extremist co-religionists, along with an acute sense of injustice over the treatment of Muslims abroad, especially in Israel and Afghanistan; but there the similarity breaks down. Terrorism plays no part in their outlook, and certainly not in a domestic UK context – they may view Palestinian suicide bombers more sympathetically. But the extremists hover at the fringes of these communities, and that leaves the British state with a very tricky problem. They need intelligence from the established minority communities, and so to maintain good relations with them. But they are quite unsympathetic to many of their beliefs.

Into this delicate situation wade opportunistic journalists and careless politicians, Mr Gove among them. To them there is a direct line between the terrorist threat and conservative religious values. Most of the white community assume this to be the case, and happily lap up this message. Almost no politicians attempt to put a more realistic public gloss on this.

And so when allegations emerged that conservative Muslims had taken over a number of state schools in Birmingham (as part of a “Trojan Horse” plot), Mr Gove assumed that terrorism was at the heart of it, and so did most of the public. He steamed into a delicate situation, upsetting community relations and the Home Office, responsible for policing. The schools had been rated highly by Ofsted, who had focused on academic achievement, which was strong. The inspectors were sent in again with a different agenda, found evidence of  a conservative religious agenda, and, with a bit of ingenuity, ways in which these breached requirements of state-funded schools. The schools are in the process of being transferred to new management.

But the problems have only just begun:

  1. What has been alleged is that school governors, recruited from the local community, took the schools over and forced them into a conservative religious agenda. The school populations were almost entirely drawn from the local Muslim communities. But this is surely what school governors are supposed to do? They set the direction, ethos and strategy of the school. Their actions appear to have been perfectly popular with parents (though not staff). And though not faith schools, the widespread political support for faith schools would not have suggested to them that what they were doing was a bad thing. They were simply picking up the ball tossed by Westminster politicians and running with it.
  2. The actual alleged abuses are not so black and white. Segregation of the sexes? We still have 100% segregated schools. Allowing tradition Muslim dress? A lot of perfectly respectable schools do that already – and that is surely right. The same goes for making provision for prayer, which after all can be open to all faiths. A culture of intimidation? sounds a bit like my English private school education. And surely school management has a right to make the changes it wants, and this always leads to such allegations. The were, predictably, no demonstrable links to terrorist extremism.
  3. We are now told that Mr Gove wants “British Values” to be taught at all schools. Not only is defining this a minefield, but it is a step away from the “fact-based” principles that he had been so fond of espousing. And how will “real” faith schools, and not just Muslim ones, end up if judged to the same standards as those used in the second wave of Birmingham Ofsted inspections?
  4. Sorting out this mess is going to take a lot of work. Schools can’t in fact be left just to get on with it. They are going to need help, guidance and correction from an intermediate level of officialdom. A newly recreated Blob, in fact.

And so we find that parents are free to choose, provided they conform Mr Gove’s own version of political correctness. It is very easy to understand how the local Muslim community (and no so local ones) feel victimised – judged by double standards from a society that has lost its moral compass.

The government’s reforms are barking up the wrong tree. Here in London we have an outstanding example of how seemingly hopeless schools in deprived areas can be turned round. This did not need the creation of Academies; the existing local authority structures were up to the task. What it is did need was strong and credible leadership. Politicians can lead from on high, but ultimately this leadership has to come from experts who live and breath schools. The country was lucky enough to have plenty of these. But they have been side-lined and pensioned off.

Coalition policy is hollow at its heart, and the last four years have been largely wasted. Even Labour could do a better job than this.