Education Matters: Gove sowed the wind that created ‘Trojan Horse’

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury. - Credit: Archant

Geoff Barton takes a closer look at the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal

So the Government’s in a flap over something called Britishness – what it is and where it’s gone.

It’s part of a mad-cap and vaguely hysterical crisis that risks leading to a number of silly knee-jerk decisions about education policy. Here’s the background.

Ofsted last week published a damning report based on emergency inspections of 21 schools in Birmingham. The inspectors were sent in to these schools – all of them state-funded and none of them faith schools – after reports that they were possibly encouraging extremism.

Here are some of the findings summarised in the Chief Inspector’s letter to the Education Secretary:

n A culture of fear and intimidation has developed in some of the schools since their previous inspection.

n Some headteachers reported that there has been an organised campaign to target certain schools in Birmingham in order to alter their character and ethos.

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n The evidence shows that governors have recently exerted inappropriate influence on policy and the day-to-day running of several schools in Birmingham.

n Birmingham City Council has failed to support a number of schools in their efforts to keep pupils safe from the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism.

n In several of the schools inspected, children are being badly prepared for life in modern Britain.

Now, there are many people – including residents of Birmingham and teachers who work in some of those schools - who strongly dispute what inspectors claim and are demanding better evidence.

I’ll leave that investigation to the experts. My interest is in what has happened since the inspections.

The weekend’s news headlines have been clogged with panicky claims by the Prime Minister that we all need to “stop being bashful about being British” and teach our children more about the core elements of British history and how our democracy developed.

He’s suggesting that Ofsted shold undertake more unannounced inspections on schools so that any rumours that extremism is being promoted can quickly be investigated. He is also proposing that some key bits of British history are taught more formally to all children.

The reason we’re seeing such hysteria is because what has happened is a huge indictment of the Government’s education policy. Now they’re desperately looking for someone to blame – teachers, Muslims, local authorities, anyone but themselves.

Within days of taking office in 2010 as education secretary, Michael Gove announced the academy programme. The idea was to encourage the boldest schools to exercise freedom, shake off the rusty shackles of local authority control, and breathe in a new intoxicating air of liberation.

These schools signed a funding agreement with the Department for Education that promised a broad and balanced curriculum, but they were not required to teach the agreed National Curriculum. They could decide instead what they wanted to teach.

So what we are seeing is the unravelling of policy. It always struck many of us as bizarre to have a National Curriculum which was then merely optional in the growing number of schools that became academies.

If – as Michael Gove once promised – it would contain “the best that has been thought and said”, then why wouldn’t it apply to every child, irrespective of her race, religion and background in every state school?

And at the end of the year-long consultation on this optional curriculum it’s interesting to note that the history syllabus still deems King John and Magna Carta non-statutory - something that is voluntary even in schools which teach the National Curriculum.

And as for the proposal that no-notice Ofsted inspections should be used more often, this doesn’t require a change of policy. Ofsted is already entitled to turn up unannounced if they want to.

If I was writing a new science curriculum, the events of the weekend would make me want to include a large section on genetic engineering. That would help all of us to understand last week’s embarrassing scenes – a Whitehall landscape peppered with headless chickens.