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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue