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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.