The “Trojan horse” schools, fake letters in the Mail and Robert Harris’s hatred of Blair

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

A poster against Michael Gove is displayed on the railings outside Oldknow Academy, Birmingham. Photo: Getty
A poster against Michael Gove is displayed on the railings outside Oldknow Academy, Birmingham. Photo: Getty

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”.