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.