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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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.