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'Trojan Horse': who is attacking education?
Jane Nellist Coventry NUT and National Executive Member (personal capacity)
For the last two months, news headlines have been dominated by the so-called 'Trojan Horse' story relating to schools in Birmingham. It started with accusations in an anonymous letter, widely now thought to be a fake, that a number of schools were being targeted by Muslim extremists for takeover.
This has ignited a massive row within the Tory ranks between two leadership contenders, Michael Gove and Theresa May. Thousands of column inches are being dedicated to this absolute mess. However, the school debacle is a direct result of the increased deregulation and breaking up of our state education through Academies and Free Schools - started by Labour, but accelerated under the Con-Dems.
At the heart of this debate are young people and their families who are looking towards education as a key to improving their life chances. The story has peaked at a time when thousands of young people are taking exams and has undoubtedly left young people and parents worried about their choice of schools.
There has been much anti-Muslim bias surrounding the allegations made in Birmingham. But the case also contains a warning of the inevitable way the Free School and Academy model can be used by groups and individuals to unfairly promote and disseminate, in a one-sided way, religious ideas in schools.
Michael Gove has long-held views of the supposed threat to Britain from an Islamist route and how to address it. In his terms, he favoured "draining the swamp" rather than his characterisation of May's approach of fighting off the crocodiles one by one!
But Gove has encouraged religious groups to run Academies. The BBC reports him saying that the 'freedoms' that come with academy status would mean a religious school "can place itself permanently out of range of any such unsympathetic meddling" of the "moral and cultural relativism" imposed by some local authority educationalists.
Provocatively Gove sent Ofsted inspectors into 21 schools in Birmingham. Five of the schools have been graded 'inadequate' and placed in special measures, three of them run by the Park View Educational Trust. Others may follow - including schools which only a few months ago had been rated as 'outstanding' by the same inspection process.
The deployment of Ofsted, supposedly an independent body, has been used by Gove as a political sledgehammer.
Alongside these measures, Birmingham Local Authority set up an investigation headed by pro-big business politicians and various groups, including the Bishop of Birmingham. Given the sensitivities about religion in this debate, you have to ask yourself - was this a wise choice?
This whole debate is very complex and fraught with overreaction and contradictions. A minority of the large Muslim community in Birmingham is accused in the letter of seeking to 'take over schools' and turn them into Islamic schools with the introduction of more conservative religious practices.
It is alleged that these practices include segregation of girls and boys, strong encouragement of girls to wear a scarf to cover their hair, along with Islamic religious worship and a denial of sex and relationships education. A section of the Islamic community is also being accused of targeting head-teachers, senior leaders and governors with the aim of replacing them.
But let's just ask a question: which organisation has sacked the most head-teachers and governors and has been instrumental in setting up more faith-based Free Schools, including Muslim schools? Yes, the Department for Education, headed by Michael Gove!
In Coventry there are two new Free Schools opening this year - a Sikh Free School and the Muslim Leadership School for Girls. The city's first Academy conversion, Grace Academy, was created as a result of the closure of a comprehensive school and replaced by one that is founded on 'Christian values and standards', and is sponsored by committed Christian, Lord Robert Edmiston. Edmiston vehemently opposed the legalisation of gay marriage and recently the school was forced to review its policy on sex education because it did not teach about homosexuality.
Those of us who have been fighting the Academies and Free Schools programme from the very beginning warned what would happen if governments started to allow schools to be run by unaccountable groups of people (see right).
The problem is that even if the 'Trojan Horse' crisis in Birmingham is based on a false premise, capitalist politicians are going to exploit it for their own ends which inevitably will not be in the interests of the working class and all those many thousands of families who are seeking a good education for their children.
We need to step up the fight against these attacks on our education system. The publication by the Department for Education of 'model documents to help church schools converting to Academies' on 9 June show the government's intention to continue the privatisation of education.
The cuts have also made the situation much worse - as a Birmingham councillor acknowledges: "We saved the children's social care budget last year but had to slash the education budget to do it. We don't have support staff for schools any longer and governors' support is abysmal."
But Labour started off these attacks with the introduction of Academies. Tristram Hunt, shadow education minister, is unambiguous in stating that Labour has no intention of adopting policies to re-establish strong, democratic, accountable Education Authorities locally.
More than half of all secondary schools are no longer under the control of a Local Education Authority and an increasing number of primary schools are becoming academies. The Guardian reports in passing that the Tories hope they can use this debacle to remove all 400 schools from Birmingham council control.
We need to ensure that all local communities feel that they have a stake in education and that their religion and culture is taken into account in the schools where their children attend. We need to also ensure that all our young people are given the skills, knowledge and understanding to keep them safe, tolerant of other communities and groups of people, whatever colour, sexual orientation, gender and regardless of religion including no religion.
Bring academies back into democratic local control
Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw's claim that inspectors have uncovered "a culture of fear and intimidation" in some Birmingham schools is breath-taking in its hypocrisy.
Schools right across England operate under exactly that kind of culture - but through fear of an Ofsted regime that is used as a political tool to force schools into becoming Academies.
The heavy-handed response to the supposed 'Trojan Horse' will only have increased that fear. Now David Cameron is threatening 'no-notice' inspections which will further ratchet up the already intolerable pressures on staff.
If politicians are serious about improving morale - and about encouraging local accountability - then they should bring academies back into democratic local control and support the demand raised in my general secretary campaign - to abolish Ofsted.
- Martin is standing for general secretary of the National Union of Teachers on a programme of defence of comprehensive education, of teachers' rights and against all of Gove and the Con-Dems' attacks on education. See electmartin1.blogspot.co.uk for more on the campaign.
Here we reprint a short extract from a 2006 article by Martin Powell-Davies (pictured, inset) in which he warns of the dangers posed by New Labour's faith schools policy, which the Con-Dems have built on. Read the full article at: www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/443/5258
In opposing privatisation and selection, teachers and trade unionists also have to tackle the broader question of whether faith schools should have any place in our school system at all.
The teachers' unions need to win the argument in local communities, including faith communities, against Church schools having a separate status to community schools. Our policy should be to encourage all faith schools to become fully integrated in the state sector.
That doesn't mean that socialists and trade unionists shouldn't carefully explain why they support secular education, while also defending the right of every individual to practise their religion. This should include supporting the granting of special leave for religious festivals, not just Christian ones. It also means defending the right of Muslim girls to choose - or to choose not - to wear a headscarf.
However, we must oppose religious views being used as an excuse to prevent young people from gaining access to a thorough health and sex education or to allow discriminatory or scientifically false ideas such as 'intelligent design' to find their way into the curriculum.
The correct approach is for the teachers' unions to clearly state policies that should apply universally - for inclusive, well-resourced, non-discriminatory, genuinely comprehensive schools teaching a range of religious and non-religious views as part of a wider humanities curriculum that encourages solidarity across the globe.
By uniting support behind these aims, the union can strengthen its campaign against the imposition of business and religious sponsors and help encourage existing
faith schools to become fully integrated within local authorities as community schools.
The trade union movement has to strongly warn against the dangers of faith schools segregating and dividing working class communities whereas multi-faith, comprehensive education,
while it cannot alone overcome all the problems of society outside the school gates, enables youth to accept and recognise differences of faith and race, fostering a unity that will be built on in the wider community outside the school gates.
This is particularly important at a time when, in the absence of a clear socialist alternative, poverty, wars and oppression have created the conditions for the growth of more fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity, Islam and other faiths.
Unchallenged, these ideas could contribute to increasing religious and ethnic tensions that can dangerously divide workers and youth.
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