Stuart King from London IS Network examines the media storm around supposed Islamic extremism in Birmingham schools.
When the so-called Trojan Horse document surfaced in March revealing a “jihadist plot” to take over schools in Birmingham, the media went into overdrive. Apparently Islamic extremists were taking over governing bodies, driving out head teachers and turning our schools into hotbeds of terrorism and worse.
Despite the fact that most people in the know believed this document to be a fake, no fewer than five different inquiries were launched. The education secretary Michael Gove led the charge by appointing an “anti-terrorism expert” to lead one, just in case anyone was in any doubt about the seriousness of the threat to our way of life.
Ofsted, pliant tool of the state that it is, was told to revisit the schools that 11 months previously it had rated as “outstanding” and find evidence of extremism (and apparently, if leaks to the Guardian are to be believed, sent back when their first drafts weren’t damning enough).
Sure enough last week Ofsted came up with the required reports having inspected 21 Birmingham schools. Five schools that were rated “good” or “outstanding” were now rated as “inadequate”; they and one other were put into “special measures”. Four of these run by Academy Trusts had their funding withdrawn within 24 hours by Gove’s department and will be transferred to other trusts.
What were the charges levelled against these Birmingham schools? Did Ofsted find jihadist training camps, madrassa-style education, girls consigned to burqas and niqabs in separate buildings? Not quite. They found governors seeking “inappropriate influence on policy and the day-to-day running of schools”, they found the curriculum was “too narrow” and pupils were “not prepared well enough for life in modern Britain”. Also schools had not done enough to “safeguard” pupils against extremism – on the internet for example, and teaching about relationships and sex education “was poor”.
Anecdotes were seized on by the media, an “Islamic extremist” was allowed into one school to speak on … time management, tombola was objected to at a school fete as gambling, music was objected to in one class during Ramadan (although singing went ahead), girls sat separately during a picnic, an expensive trip was organised to Saudi Arabia – not one to sell arms that no doubt would have been the subject of congratulation!
Whether any or all these things should or should not have happened in state schools, what is clear is that in terms of a “jihadi plot to take over Birmingham schools” they actually amount to a hill of beans.
Gove the neocon
What we in fact have here is a sustained anti-Islamic witch-hunt launched by a neoconservative education secretary supported by his friends in the right wing media. Gove’s extremist neocon views even led to a clash with Theresa May. He demanded that the Home Office combat conservative Islamic views even if they posed no threat of lawbreaking or jihadi violence. It was a case of “draining the swamp”, as he typically put it, of making clear that Islamic views in general were dangerous and needed to be dealt with.
It is instructive to compare Gove’s open Islamophobia with his attitude to the Christian sects within the faith school sector. In 2011 he declared that “by becoming an academy, a Catholic school can place itself permanently out of range of any unsympathetic meddling and so ensure that it can remain true to its Catholic traditions”. On being challenged by the TUC in 2012 that literature being used in Catholic schools was homophobic, he ruled that the Equality Act “did not apply to the curriculum” and that therefore these schools could go on discriminating in their sex and relationship lessons.
This Islamophobia is familiar to anyone who has read that US bible of neoconservatism, The Clash of Civilisations, which sees the next great struggle after the defeat of the Soviet Union as the struggle between Christian enlightened democracy and a fanatical Islam. It is therefore no surprise that Gove has turned the whole Trojan Horse affair into a campaign for “British values” in schools, a new version, for those with long memories, of Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test” for Asians, who could only prove they were really worthy of being British by supporting “our cricket team”.
Religion and schools
Clearly there were problems in some schools in Birmingham in relation to religion, and some governors and teachers desired to impart their particular religious views and practices into the daily life of their schools. Tory politicians and Ofsted have said that the problem is that they overstepped the line because these were not “faith schools”, suggesting that had they been, this sort of pressure would have been “acceptable”.
Indeed what they are recognising is that this is exactly what happens in faith schools where for example the Catholic Church exercises these practices on a daily basis without anyone ever raising an eyebrow. The position of religion in schools is at the heart of these problems yet no party in parliament dare deal with it.
Labour’s response has been to avoid the issue, choosing to highlight Cabinet infighting, delays in taking action and Gove’s expansion of Academies and Free Schools resulting in atomisation and lack of local control of schools. Labour’s alternative is not to abolish Academies and Free Schools and bring back these schools under democratic local council control but to construct yet another layer of bureaucracy via “Local School Commissioners”.
They also fail to tackle the issue that is at the heart of what is going on in Birmingham and across the country, which is the place of religion in state-funded education. A British education system that allowed the Christian sects – C of E, Catholic, Non-Conformist – a large degree of control over our schools is now being extended to many other religions and communities. One unintended consequence of New Labour’s and now the Tory/Lib Dem drive to dismantle municipal control of education as a precursor to privatisation of the school system has been growing religious/community control of schools.
The disastrous segregated and sectarian religious education system that exists in Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, one that has resulted in so much division and sectarian violence, is in danger of being extended across multiple communities across Britain, as Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, demand “equality” with the Christians.
For socialists who seek to unite and integrate all religious and cultural communities within the working class, secular education that removes religious faith teaching from our schools is an absolute must. Religion is and must remain a private matter for individuals.
This does not mean that we ban religion from schools but that we ensure that where religion is taught it is done in a historical and comparative context. Of course religious belief and practices must be respected, with prayer rooms provided in schools, dietary provision made available, and religious dress allowed, but religion as faith must be removed from the curriculum and from normal school hours. Instead all religions should be allowed to use school premises outside school hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to teach and pursue voluntary religious education at their own expense, not at the expense of the taxpayer.
This way schools can be used for what they are supposed to be for, to educate pupils in the broadest possible sense without becoming a battleground for religious sectarianism or for those politicians like Michael Gove to use to stoke up prejudice against minority religions and communities.