Oldknow Academy, one of the Birmingham Schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse inquiry. Photo: Getty
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Leader: We should also be concerned about what is going on in faith schools

It is alarming that ultra-conservative religious groups should exert, or wish to exert, an influence over the teaching of pupils, yet such influence is at work, too, in existing faith schools. 

Last November, an anonymous letter arrived at the offices of Birmingham City Council. It purported to describe “Operation Trojan Horse”, a plot through which Islamists were alleged, over a period of years, to have infiltrated school governing bodies in the city and, in effect, taken them over. Allegations began to circulate of gender-segregated classes, compulsory Islamic prayers and fundamentalist preachers leading assemblies in what were secular schools.

Blame has since been attached to the council, the police and two departments of state. However, it remains surprisingly unclear whether such a plot ever occurred. There is little evidence of any systemic infiltration of Birmingham’s school system by Islamic extremists; many of the more hysterical allegations remain unproven. The original letter may have even been a hoax.

In a Commons speech on 9 June, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said that as a result of the inquiries into 21 Birmingham schools the government would require all schools “actively [to] promote British values”. These, a spokesperson explained, included democracy, the rule of law, liberty, tolerance and respect. Such values are a fine basis on which to organise a society but they tell us almost nothing about what appropriate school uniform policies should be, or the ethics and desirability of gender-segregated swimming lessons.

Mr Gove has also granted Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, the power to inspect any state school at any time without prior warning. But why should we trust Ofsted? The “Trojan horse” affair has served to expose the inspectorate’s own failings. Several Birmingham schools graded as good or outstanding when last inspected have, following further inspection, been reclassified as “inadequate”. It is difficult to see how both sets of ratings can have been correct.

The Birmingham affair raises two pertinent questions about Conservative education policies. First, Ofsted found little evidence of active extremism (though it warned of a failure to protect children from it). It did, however, reveal attempts to “alter [the] character and ethos” of certain schools in Birmingham; in other words, to turn them into faith schools by other means.

It is alarming that ultra-conservative religious groups should exert, or wish to exert, an influence over the teaching of pupils. Yet such influence is at work, too, in existing faith schools – and these have been expanded under the current government. If we recoil from what is allegedly happening in secular schools in cities such as Birmingham and Bradford, should we not also be alarmed by what might be happening in faith schools across the country?

Second, how much is Mr Gove culpable for allowing schools to operate without satisfactory oversight? The motivation behind his reforms has been to “empower” head teachers and governors by encouraging schools to opt out of local authority control. Academies and free schools can depart from the National Curriculum and are accountable directly to the all-powerful Education Secretary in Whitehall, the man who thinks he knows best and believes he can control more than 24,000 schools through central diktat.

The English education system is desperately fragmented. There are fee-paying private schools, academically selective grammar schools, independent state academies and free schools, faith schools, comprehensives accountable to local authorities, and technical colleges. One serious consequence of this fragmentation has been a weakening of the mechanisms through which state schools are supposed to be monitored.

As well as being passionate about education “reform”, Mr Gove is an ardent neoconservative. In 2006, he published a book on Muslim extremism, Celsius 7/7, one chapter of which is called “The Trojan Horse”. But if he genuinely fears creeping Islamism in state schools in England, he should roll back some of his reforms and tighten regulation.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.