Some scepticism is in order regarding the claim that the controversy surrounding a small group of schools in Birmingham is just about Muslim extremism. It obscures the fact that this is rather more a crisis in the Government's reform of the state school system in England. The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was so keen to break the power of what he calls “the blob” – an alleged body of ideologically motivated educationalists entrenched in the system particularly at local authority level – that he has created the conditions under which the Birmingham problem could emerge.
His free schools programme and the project to make the academy model almost universal, encouraged by the way he distributed public funds, were designed to bypass local authority supervision. He made elected and appointed school governors more important in each institution’s internal life, and made them more answerable to local opinion.
Once freed from the influence of “progressive” educationalists, Mr Gove’s theory went, parents and governors would insist on a more traditional type of education with a stress on academic success, measured by examination results. But putting the emphasis there meant neglecting broader educational issues – for instance, the need to educate the whole child, ready to take his or her place in modern secular society. The vital socialisation of children has been sacrificed on the altar of tests and targets.
It apparently never occurred to the Education Secretary that some governors and some parents in some places, influenced by a highly conservative version of Islam in the local mosque, would want the local school in which a majority of children were Muslim to adjust its culture accordingly – for example by requiring male and female pupils to be segregated, or girls to be veiled.
And if teachers, including heads, did not cooperate, he had given governors the power to overrule or even replace them. But this is not so much the result of a sinister plot by Muslim extremists, more the logic of Mr Gove’s entire free school and academy reform programme. He handed power to local people, and they used it. If they rejected Western culture, particularly its attitude to the equality of women, then they had simply used the freedom Mr Gove had given them to exploit their power.
The more secularist commentators have switched their outrage to faith schools in general – which have nothing to do with the issue since none of the Birmingham schools is a faith school. The real problem is the lack of intermediate institutions, which LEAs were, and the system now in place that is highly dependent on the whim of the Secretary of State.
Ofsted, though it has now changed its mind, had previously given some of the affected Birmingham schools glowing reports. And indeed they did achieve academic success. Meanwhile governance issues, for instance relations between teachers and governors, were not adequately addressed.
More seriously, the issue has blurred the distinction between a conservative Islam favoured by some Muslims in Britain, and fanatical jihadist militancy followed by a small minority; and driven wider the existing wedge between conservative Islam and British society at large.
Far from discouraging extremism, that creates the very conditions in which it could grow.
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