After publication, I downloaded all 21 of Ofsted’s Birmingham reports. Then I became more realistic about my reading limitations, and read only the reports for the five schools being placed into special measures. These are listed in Mark Wallace’s article here, from where you can also download the reports themselves.
What do the reports say?
They are relatively short, and I recommend reading them. The reports contain a litany of failings, with some differences from school to school. The summary below is necessarily broad brush.
- Some schools provide poor quality, badly organised and inadequate teaching. Others are teaching well, but sometimes not stretching the brightest pupils.
- There are many governance failings which have nothing to do with imposing a particular religious agenda on the schools. For example non-transparent and potentially discriminatory recruitment, perhaps influenced by nepotism. At times the reports are like icebergs, but what is above the surface and printed is damning enough.
- Excessive interference by the governing body to impose a conservative Islamic religious environment upon the school far beyond basic and desirable provisions such as halal food or space and time for pupils to pray if they wish.
- All of the schools were judged to have taken insufficient action to guard against the risk of their pupils being exposed to extremist views.
Will the reports withstand legal challenge?
Given the media reporting of some of the reactions from the governing bodies, it is possible that legal challenges may be mounted. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” However I am confident that Sir Michael Wilshaw will have anticipated the risk of litigation and everyone at Ofsted will have done their best to ensure that the reports are legally watertight. Accordingly I expect any legal challenges to fail.
Do I object to anything in the reports?
All I know about the schools comes from the reports themselves plus what I have seen in the media since Trojan Horse first broke. However as I read each report, as a Briton of Muslim belief and Pakistani ethnicity, I inevitably asked myself if I had any bones to pick. There were some.
The law requires all schools to hold a Christian act of worship, unless they have a dispensation. Where the pupils are overwhelmingly Muslim, I would expect this dispensation to be given routinely. The Nansen primary school lists six governance failings, one of which is below:
“Currently, the academy has a weekly whole-school assembly, which is of an Islamic character. The governing body has not received permission from the Education Funding Agency for an exemption from providing a broadly Christian act of worship. This means that governing body fails to meet this aspect of their responsibilities.”
This failing is given parity with the others listed which appears to be nit-picking. If the Inspectors consider that failure to obtain a routine dispensation is symptomatic of a more serious underlying compliance failure, they should say so. Otherwise they risk being accused of chucking in the kitchen sink to ensure that they got a conviction. The same point applies to Oldknow Academy which had a 2008 dispensation which expired in January 2013 which was not renewed. I assume this arose from a failure to apply for a renewal, rather than from DfE turning down a renewal application.
We are told that most pupils at Nansen come from a Pakistani or Somali background, but are not told precisely what proportion of the pupil body are Muslims. The Nansen report also contains the following governance failing:
“The governing body is overly controlling in the day-to-day running of the school. For example, when the teachers in the Early Years Foundation Stage wanted pupils to take part in a nativity play, governors insisted on vetting a copy of the script for its suitability and told staff they must not use a doll as the ‘baby Jesus’.”
While the complaint of overly controlling governors may well be valid, I do not regard the above as appropriate evidence. Unless the teachers have sufficient expertise on Islam themselves, I do not regard it as unreasonable for the governors to seek assurance that the script of a nativity play is appropriate for Muslim pupils. I can also understand why they might object to using a doll to represent Jesus, one of Islam’s holiest prophets.
I have no independent knowledge of any of these five schools. However the overall impression left by the inspection reports is of schools where governance is not working properly, and where there are other serious failings which vary from school to school. I have no reason to doubt that Ofsted has acted properly in judging the schools to be inadequate.
Excessive religion in non-faith state schools
It is a fundamental point that all five schools are not faith schools. Many of the complaints about excessive religious conservatism would fall away if the schools were faith schools, since faith schools are expected by parents and others to give much higher priority to religious matters than do secular schools.
Paradoxically, faith schools often perform better in teaching pupils about other faiths precisely because their status makes them more conscious of the need to do so. They are also well placed to twin with schools of other faiths to help achieve such cross-faith education.
Where do we go from here?
How to fix the schools being placed in special measures is a job for the DfE, hopefully with local Birmingham help.
More broadly, I strongly agree with Michael Gove, and David Cameron, that we need to agree a set of British values that are taught by all schools. These need to be formulated carefully, since the implication of listing British values is that those people who reject them are beyond the pale.
The list Mr Cameron gave in Sweden on 10 June is a good start.
“I would say freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions – those are the sorts of things that I would hope would be inculcated into the curriculum in any school in Britain whether it was a private school, state school, faith-based school, free school, academy or anything else.”
It is critical that we do not define British values in a way that excludes people of particular religious faiths. In the spirit of Norman Tebbit’s cricket test, let me provide Mohammed Amin’s “David test”. I believe that you must be able to sign up to the list of British values regardless of whether you regard Michelangelo’s David as great art, or consider it to be a violation of the Fourth Commandment, or regard it as sacrilegious since Muslims consider David a prophet.
At the same time however, as I wrote in 2011 in “The Conservative Party, racial equality and national identity” (see link) there must be a hard edge to our definition of British values, so that there are some people who fall outside. If absolutely everyone claims to support the list of British values, we will know that we have produced a list of platitudinous mush.