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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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