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Monday, June 09, 2014 

Michael Gove proves his worth yet again.

The idea that Ofsted inspectors can get a true, rounded image of how a school is performing over just two days is a fiction.  In most cases, not even the teachers themselves really know what's going on; the more perceptive kids certainly will, but it's rare they're regarded as being truly reliable or for that matter questioned at length by inspectors.  My old failing comprehensive shouldn't be taken as representative, not least as it's now over a decade since I thankfully left it behind, yet I can't help recalling the story told by one of our teachers about the head asking who she was.  "I'm so and so.  You're the one who conducted my final interview."

This is exactly why we should treat the reports finally released today into the 21 schools in Birmingham at the heart of the "Trojan Horse" allegations with a healthy dose of scepticism.  Considering these reports have been about the worst kept secret since Ryan Giggs' love life, with practically all the findings on the five being placed in special measures leaked in advance, the findings don't come across as the biggest shock.  They additionally don't because, with a few notable exceptions, Ofsted hasn't found prima facie evidence of extremism.  Attempts by governors in some instances to instil a more hardline Islamic ethos on some of the schools yes, success in doing so was mostly more difficult to come across.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was then left with the task of explaining why schools ranked as outstanding two years ago are inadequate now.  The obvious thing was to say all this had happened since the last inspections, despite the fact we know these were not new concerns, and to make the evidence sound a lot more firm and grounded than it actually is, and what do you know, that's exactly what Wilshaw's done.  Compare the reports into Park View and Golden Hillock for instance with that of the inspection of Oldknow Academy, and you soon discover which Wilshaw draws the most from for his letter to Michael Gove.

Oldknow is certainly the school where the evidence of an attempt by governors to exert control is most apparent.  The principal is currently on sick leave, having handed in her resignation in January, with the additional report by the Education Funding Agency (PDF) redacting some of the further information.  Staff said the school had becoming increasingly Islamic over the past year, that the celebration of other religious festivals had been cancelled despite Eid celebrations going ahead, with the most serious allegations involving the Arabic and maths teacher.  He refused to shake the hand of the EFA's female education adviser, while his was the only class they observed where every girl was wearing a headscarf and they were all sat at the back of the room.

At Park View, which has had most of the focus on it, the evidence isn't quite as stark.  Ofsted states externals speakers have not been vetted properly, a reference to how Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman was invited in as an external speaker.  He isn't named in the Ofsted report but rather in the additional EFA one.  The Graun reported last week this detail may have been dropped after the school complained he had spoken at other universities and schools, wasn't considered an extremist by the Prevent programme, and his talk had been on "time management".  The EFA also notes many classrooms had posters advocating prayer, while some in a maths classroom encouraged pupils to begin and end the lesson with a prayer.  Religious education after Year 9 was also exclusively Islamic, with those children who wanted to study for the Christian GCSE having to "teach themselves".  There was also some evidence of gender segregation, although the EFA again makes more of this than Ofsted.

Mark Easton makes the important point that much as we might recoil from this, and as Ofsted, the EFA and indeed (indeed) Michael Gove apparently do, view such an atmosphere as not being conducive to community cohesion, failing to prepare those attending for life in multicultural Britain, where do you draw the line in a system seemingly devised to be in a constant state of controlled chaos?  If Park View and the rest were designated faith schools rather than "normal" academies in an area where the majority are Muslims, would there be the same problem?  The main finding against Park View and Golden Hillock is that at both too little is being done to raise students' awareness of the threat from extremism, which in practice effectively means teachers and governors haven't received training from the Prevent programme.  Exactly how many other schools could be accused of this failing, one wonders?  In the Park View report, Ofsted state "[S]tudents’ understanding of the arts, different cultures and other beliefs are limited."  You suspect the same could be said of almost every school that isn't ranked outstanding regardless of the area it serves.

Just how far this obsession with extremism is being taken is set out in the Ofsted inspection of Graceland Nursery School.  As a matter of urgency, according to Ofsted, the school should "ensure that key policies such as the child protection policy, anti-bullying and behaviour policies include reference to identifying and minimising extremist behaviour."  The children the school caters for are 3 to 5 years old, for crying out loud.  If this is Michael Gove's idea of "draining the swamp", we can only thank our lucky stars he's not environment minister.

Apart from the Park View schools being taken over, about Gove's only other substantive suggestions are snap, no notice Ofsted inspections and schools being required to promote "British values".  As to what British values are, your guess is frankly as good as mine.  If as suggested it's teaching respect for the rule of law and how the police and army can be held accountable to the people, then it might be a start if the government had the same respect for the former and we made it so that the latter is a reality rather than a lie.  Much as John Harris is right to argue that the overriding issue here is the disarray schools are currently in thanks to Michael Gove's determination for every single one to be an academy, with it being obvious from the outset those with an ideology to push would be first to take advantage, we can't ignore the role of religion in general.  If parents want their children to have a religious education, they're perfectly entitled to provide them with one; the state however shouldn't be in the business of doing so.  It also wouldn't go amiss if the education secretary wasn't someone apparently convinced that behind every decent, honourable Muslim there's another waiting to go off.

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