Over-emphasising the Britishness of certain universal values risks stoking xenophobia.
Over-emphasising the Britishness of certain universal values risks stoking xenophobia
The acrimony surrounding the ‘Trojan horse’ school governor row have continued, with Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw stating that Michael Gove blocked snap school inspections.
Wilshaw, Gove, May, Birmingham City Council, head teachers, parents and community leaders seem locked in claim and counter-claim that is difficult to understand. Schools that were recently graded as outstanding by Ofsted have now been deemed ‘inadequate’.
A warning letter may be a fake. Nobody will emerge unscathed, but the actions of Michael Gove may actually make young people more vulnerable to religious extremism.
First, Gove appointed Peter Clarke, the former head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism, to oversee the inquiry into the schools. This move attracted wide criticism, including from the police themselves.
Such a move further criminalises Muslims, risks alienating them and making whole sectors of society feel defensive and unwanted. Arguably, this risks decreasing support for institutions such as the police.
Second, Gove has vowed that schools will uphold ‘British’ values. Although not uniquely British, presumably these include democracy, the rule of law, equality of opportunity and treatment and freedom of speech.
Over-emphasising the Britishness of these universal values risks stoking xenophobia as it reminds the public of the ‘other’ among them. Again it makes Muslims a suspect community.
Secondary schools already have an obligation to teach these values – through citizenship education. Introduced in 2002, citizenship education is an important legacy of David Blunkett’s time as education secretary. Unsurprisingly, as a new subject, it has had problems establishing itself as serious subject of study. The practice of many schools to merge it with personal, health and social education has not helped.
Although citizenship education has survived the recent National Curriculum review, Gove has been open in his distaste for the subject. At present, central government is giving little curricular support and guidance to help schools improve their citizenship teaching. If the government wants schools to uphold progressive values it needs to change its attitude to citizenship education.
Third, under Labour, schools also had an obligation to promote social cohesion. Although this condition is a contested term, many academics and policy makers agree it comprises social inclusion, solidarity, reciprocity and trust outside kinship groups and shared values. Alienation and religious extremism may be more likely outcomes where social cohesion is lacking.
A few schools fulfilled this duty imaginatively; many were not effective. But at least the obligation was there and there was growing good practice in towns such as Oldham. Here sports and arts activities have been used by schools to bring previously divided communities together.
Yet in 2010 Michael Gove removed the duty of schools to promote social cohesion.
Fourth, Michael Gove has undermined the activities that can bring school children together and create a shared future. There have been year-on-year cuts to music education. It is clear that he misunderstands the value of school sport as he sees it as a punishment, rather than an essential part of the education system.
Fifth, Gove’s vanity projects – Free Schools and the destruction of local authorities – make children more vulnerable to the activities of religious extremists. There are now 154 Free Schools in England and the Department for Education now has a goal to turn all schools into academies by the end of the next parliament.
Some of the new free schools and academies are run by religious conservatives whose belief systems may well be at odds with progressive values, and the bodies that run these schools include creationist Christians, Seventh Day Adventists and Haredi Jews as well as conservative Muslims.
Free schools and academies have no obligation to deliver the National Curriculum. They do not have to appoint local authority governors, so scrutiny is weaker. Moreover, academies and Free Schools are allowed to run their own school admissions procedures.
One of the issues that has not received much attention is the high levels of religious and ethnic segregation in schools in Birmingham. Although the British Pakistani community is heavily concentrated in some parts of that city, there are still those of other religions and ethnicities who live alongside them in places such as Lozells and Handsworth. The majority of Birmingham’s population is still of white British ethnicity.
Yet many of the schools in the ‘Trojan horse’ debacle are 95-100 per cent Muslim. This is important, as religious conservatives may find it easier to control schools where there is no scrutiny from parents and governors outside a particular faith group. Children are not being prepared for life in a multicultural democracy if they do not mix with those from outside their own community.
About a third of all schools in England have religious affiliations, mostly Roman Catholic or Church of England. There is a longstanding problem of religious segregation in education in all parts of the UK – especially Northern Ireland – which Labour also ignored.
But the Free School and academy programme and the dismantling of local authority’s educational powers have put in place policies that will worsen this segregation. Where schools are outside local authority control, it is much harder to reverse or to ameliorate the effects segregation by merging schools or organising teaching and activities together.
The events in Birmingham show that debate about religious segregation in education is long overdue.
Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and from 2001-2006 ran a PGCE course in citizenship education. She is writing a book about integration and social cohesion that will be published by Policy Press next yearLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.