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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Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.