The Birmingham school system faces not one but six separate but inter-related crises which together put at risk community relations in the city, the governance and accountability of schools, the professional entitlements of school staff, the education of children and young people, especially Muslims, and the survival of the local authority itself.
The reporting of the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations in much of the press, including the Telegraph and the Birmingham Mail, using phrases like ‘Jihadist plot’, has had the effect of stirring up anti-Muslim feeling. This has been reinforced by the provocative appointment by Gove of Peter Clarke, the ex-head of the Met’s counter-terrorism unit, to lead his inquiry – linking Islam in Birmingham schools to terrorism. All of this is immensely damaging to the Muslim community in the city and to ‘race relations’ in the city as a whole, and should be strongly opposed.
2. Alleged malpractice
There are claims of unacceptable practices, much of it the responsibility of governors: some concerning the treatment of staff, some concerning the curriculum and school rules, including discrimination against girls. But how reliable are these claims? And to what extent do they involve the inappropriate application of Islamist practices, rather than simply bad governance and management? There is some evidence, but we need more proof before an overall judgement can be made. There is one further issue: if there are unacceptable practices are they individual to each school and unconnected, or is there evidence of connections between them representing some sort of coherent plan? Again, we need solid evidence in order to come to a conclusion either way.
3. Distrust in Ofsted
The reports haven’t been published yet so we don’t know the conclusions, though some material has been leaked. Hopefully they will produce sound findings. But there are concerns about the methods used, the questions asked, and whether Ofsted has acted with proper independence from Gove or been sent in as in effect his police force. The reports will need to be very critically scrutinised, not just taken at face value.
4. Gove’s academy agenda
Being an academy is part of the problem, allowing a free hand to governors unaccountable to the LA, not the solution. It is certain that Gove will hand the academies to other sponsors. It is likely to add to the Perry Beeches empire, for example. If malpractice is proved the maintained schools will certainly need strong support, but that should come from partnership with other schools, which doesn’t need academisation, together with oversight and support from the LA.
5. The Local Authority’s failings
There are concerns about the local authority’s role in the affair, ranging from the claim that it has failed to act on complaints from headteachers over several years to the composition of its Review group, male-dominated and with no representation of teachers and other school workers while heads have three representatives.
6. The LA under attack from Gove
But concerns go further: the very survival of the local authority may well be at risk. Mark Rogers has spoken of a ‘firestorm’ within the education department as a result of government action. We know that politicians have been gunning for Birmingham for years. Ofsted have said Birmingham LA is too big to run effectively. Added to this is the crisis in Children’s Care. There is a real possibility that education and children’s care will be taken away from the LA and privatised, perhaps by a takeover by a company (another profitable contract for Capita?) or companies, perhaps by handing it over in bits to a number of Trusts. Either way, the role of elected local government and therefore democratic accountability to the people of Birmingham would be reduced or taken away altogether.
What are the answers?
The so-called Trojan Horse affair is an infection that has revealed the underlying sickness of the whole school system. At its heart is the Tories’ determination to destroy the local authority system and create a market of ‘autonomous’ academies. This has opened the door to the potential for schools to be taken over by unacceptable private interests at the expense of those of children and staff. To what extent this has happened in Birmingham schools the evidence will show. In turn this has triggered an outpouring of anti-Muslim reporting by the right-wing press, exploited by Gove by linking with terrorism. Meanwhile the local authority has stood by for years while concerns were being raised.
The fundamental solution is the radical restoration, reform and democratisation of the LA. We and many others on the left have been saying:
- Stop the academy free-for-all, bring them back into a common reconstructed local authority system
- Ensure that local authorities have the power and the capacity to exercise effective oversight of all schools on behalf of the whole community they are elected to represent
- Democratise the structures and procedures of the LA to enable participation by parents, teachers and support staff, school governors, and the wider community in policy-making – for example, through representatives on a restored Education Committee and an expanded Scrutiny Committee.
Let’s be clear: if this had been in place the so-called Trojan Horse affair would never have happened: concerns by staff, parents and the young people themselves would have been raised early on with the LA, it would have investigated, and any problems would have been nipped in the bud before damage was done.
Right now the immediate task is to defend the proper educational interests of students, parents, governors and staff in the schools at risk. The solution isn’t more academy privatisation, it’s collaborative support from other schools coordinated by the LA to make sure all the schools are on the right track. That needs to be coupled with stepping up the pressure on the Labour Party to stop dithering with Gove’s policies and state unequivocally that a Labour government will implement the three bullet-point policies outlined above – a stand that would be supported by the huge majority of people in Birmingham.