My latest column for the International New York Times is about the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Britain. Here are the opening paragraphs; the full version is in the INYT, where it was published under the headline ‘Education should be beyond belief’.
Last year, the council in Birmingham, Britain’s second city, received an anonymous document that supposedly advised militant Muslims on how to take over the governing bodies of state-run schools and impose Islamist values on them. Since the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ plot was reported in March, it has become the center of a national controversy.
The original document is almost certainly a hoax, but it is clear that there is something profoundly wrong with many of the schools Birmingham, and elsewhere. What exactly, however, has largely been lost in the fog of ideological claim and counter-claim. The Trojan Horse affair has become an illustration both of the fraught debate about Islam and of the chaotic, contradictory character of government policy.
The government’s initial response, which was to launch an inquiry led by a former Metropolitan Police counter-terror chief, Peter Clarke, suggested that the issue was as much one of terrorism as of educational values. Since then, four other official inquiries have investigated some 21 schools in Birmingham. Two of those — by Ofsted, Britain’s school inspectorate, and by the Education Funding Agency, another government schools regulator — recently published reports. They painted a grim picture.
Five of the 21 schools were placed in ‘special measures’, an administrative status applied to schools deemed to be failing. Another 11 would be ‘monitored’ because the ‘quality of leadership and management requires improvement’. The Ofsted report described some governors at one school attempting to ‘promote a particular and narrow faith-based ideology’. In another, certain subjects deemed unIslamic, including music, were removed from the syllabus. The report talked also of gender segregation in certain subjects and of girls being discouraged from ‘taking part in extracurricular visits and activities’. None of the five schools, the report concluded, are ‘doing enough to mitigate against cultural isolation’ or to ‘prepare pupils adequately for life in modern Britain’.
If the mangement at these schools is disturbing, so is the official response. No evidence has been produced to link the Trojan Horse affair to terrorism. Yet the Ofsted report criticizes the schools for not taking sufficiently seriously the government’s counter-terror program, ‘Prevent’. But why should they — unless Ofsted thinks all Muslim children are potential terrorists? The report’s conclusions seem framed by the requirements of a political agenda rather than the need of certain schools for better governance.
What the investigations have revealed is not a jihadist plot, but attempts to enforce conservative religious values. What is particularly ironic is that government itself has encouraged communities to pursue their values within schools. The British state education system has always incorporated a substantial sector of so-called ‘church schools’, both Catholic and Anglican. Other faiths also receive state funding: there are a number of Jewish schools, a handful of Sikh and Hindu ones — and about a dozen Muslim establishments.
In the name of a ‘more diverse school system’, the coalition government expanded the policy of the previous Labour government to loosen schools from state control, free them from the national curriculum and allow parents and governors greater say in setting a school’s ethos.
Continue reading the whole article in the New York Times.