A poster against Michael Gove is displayed on the railings outside Oldknow Academy, Birmingham. Photo: Getty
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The “Trojan horse” schools, fake letters in the Mail and Robert Harris’s hatred of Blair

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Michael Gove has made a shambles of English schooling. That’s the main lesson we should learn from the publication of the Ofsted report on the claims of a hardline Muslim takeover in Birmingham schools. Four of the five schools now being placed in special measures for allegedly not doing enough to protect children from extremist ideas are academies, three of them linked to the same academy trust. Two were approved as academies by Gove’s Department for Education in August 2012, one later that year and one in October 2013.

The buck for this extraordinary state of affairs stops with Gove. It is typical of the political reporters and commentators – who have led the media coverage of the “Trojan horse” allegations – that they almost completely ignore the policy failure and turn the issue into a power struggle between Gove and Theresa May, the Home Secretary. Gove has recklessly allowed schools to set themselves up as academies and free schools, outside local authority control and free to depart from the National Curriculum. There are now some 3,000 academies and free schools with hundreds more to come. It is madness to suppose they can all be supervised adequately from Whitehall.

Ofsted, which described two of the “inadequate” schools as “outstanding” shortly after their conversion to academy status, has the brass neck to blame Birmingham City Council for failing to keep pupils safe from “the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism” and for ignoring complaints from head teachers about the conduct of governors. But the point of schools becoming academies is that they can tell the council to get stuffed. Local authorities at their best had professional teams of officers who were sufficiently in touch with schools to pick up quickly any signs that things were going awry. Those teams have been weakened by the steady loss of funding and powers since Gove’s appointment, so that they can barely discharge their duties even in schools the council still runs. Gove has created anarchy and, in Birmingham, we see the results.

 

Keeping the faith

There’s another largely unreported issue behind the Birmingham affair. Politicians have never worked out what to do about the demand, from some Muslims, for their own state-funded faith schools. Leading figures in all parties usually look kindly on Christian and Jewish faith schools, even though they often share some of the weaknesses – ambivalent attitudes to sex education and a
tendency to be socially and ethnically exclusive, for example – attributed to the Birmingham schools allegedly under Islamic influence. But faith schools are greatly favoured by the middle classes and that is enough for most politicians. Muslim schools are another matter because, in many people’s minds, Islam means burqas, amputations, forced marriages, terrorism, and so on.

What seems to have happened in Birmingham is that some schools, attended almost wholly by Muslim children, behaved as though they were faith schools when they did not have that status. The authorities judge, perhaps rightly, that strict Islamic faith schools would not be compatible with a multicultural society. Why are they not equally concerned about strict Catholic schools, ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools and the growing number of schools that have strong evangelical influences?

 

Back to the future?

You will note such words as “allegedly” and “seems” scattered freely around this column. Lest we forget, the “Trojan horse plot” that prompted the Birmingham furore was detailed in a letter widely thought to be a fake. If that is true, it recalls the Zinoviev letter, which helped lose the 1924 general election for the first Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald.

It purported to be from Grigory Zinoviev, an official of the Communist International, and it outlined to British communist leaders plans for revolution in Britain. Then, as now, the fake letter – published by the Daily Mail – played to popular fears of alien subversion. Then the enemy was Moscow-backed communists; now it’s Saudi-backed Islamists. Otherwise, no change.

 

From May to December

An old friend of this column, the well-known thriller writer Robert Harris, crops up again in a recent interview with Total Politics magazine. Once a fervent admirer of Tony Blair, Harris now sees him as a narcissist with a messiah complex, living “this strange life with the billionaire super-rich”. There are no such harsh words for his other old mate Peter Mandelson who, by comparison, “is the soul of plain living [and] frugality”.

When Harris talks of Mandelson, I am reminded of Martin Amis’s description of his own relationship with the late Chris­topher Hitchens – “a love whose month is ever May”. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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

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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.