There are many things to be said about the recent ‘Trojan horse’ furore in Birmingham. Was the original letter a hoax? Had there been a concerted effort to takeover schools? Was this a witch hunt? How well should OFSTED come out of this? And what of the spat between May and Gove?
There are conflicting claims and counter claims so I’ll stick with those where I feel competent to comment. Firstly, there certainly seems to have been something to worry about in terms of the governance of these schools and the influence of parents. Gove cannot escape the fact that the majority of the schools where there appears to have been a problem were academies where, by design, the local authority has no monitoring role and, evidently, Gove and the DfE are too far removed to have any impact. These sorts of problems, along with the money-making ‘conflicts of interest’ reported in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph (see link below) seem to me to be inherent in the set up of academies and ‘free’ schools. It seems barmy that one way being suggested for dealing with the problems is to transfer those schools to another academy chain, this time, presumably, one approved of by the Secretary of State.
Therein lies one of the contradictions at the heart of the coalition reforms. Gove has claimed all along that he wants to give greater freedom to schools, their managers and parents, yet, as we have already seen, this freedom is only to be exercised in a way of which Gove approves. There are now many well-documented instances of schools faced with enforced academisation where consultation has been bogus and clearly-demonstrated parental wishes have been overridden. To badly paraphrase Henry Ford, ‘you can have any kind of school you like as long as Mr Gove agrees’. So, it appears from the Birmingham cases, that we can just swap ‘ownership’ around til we get a Gove-friendly lot to manage our schools.
Mr Gove said in his recent ‘Policy Exchange’ speech that children have only one chance at school education, yet in his actions, he shows that he appears to have forgotten that: how else to explain the cavalier approach to the way schools are run? Gove’s is quite clearly a neo-con, ‘market forces’ approach, a touching faith that competition, choice and ‘the market’ will raise standards. Even if, in the long run, that proves to be the case (which I very much doubt), the logic of this approach is that some schools will suffer turbulence on the way and heaven help the children who happen to be in those schools at that time, getting their ‘one chance’.
Finally, in his response to ‘the Trojan horse’ revelations, Gove has announced that all schools will in future be required to promote ‘British values’. I could spend several posts unpicking this one. In the first place, it sounds like one of those policitians’ phrases that appeals instantly to a certain type of voter, who believes he knows what it means: remember John Major’s ill-fated ‘back to basics’? This one will obviously tap into a resurgent patriotism, at a time of near-racist comments from UKIP which seem to have touched a nerve, and, of course, the early stages of the World Cup (ie before England leaves the competition!).
Leaving aside what we might interpret ‘promote’ to mean, several high profile people have explained what they understand to be ‘British values’ – I’ve already heard David Cameron’s and Baroness Warsi’s subtley different takes; but, if he’s going to issue an edict, Mr Gove will have to give a clear definition and what will emerge, I daresay, will be a ‘motherhood and apple-pie’ (to use a non-British phrase!) definition with which no-one can disagree – something along the lines of ‘democracy, justice, fairness, tolerance, equality’ which all schools will, with some justification, claim they are promoting and have for many years.
Anyway, I’ll uncharacteristically give Mr Gove the last word. Here he is, talking to Prospect magazine in 2007: “There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness.”