Parvez Akhtar is an engine design specialist and a former Conservative mayoral candidate for Bedford.
The Birmingham schools saga has highlighted the failure of successive governments to deal with the issue of segregation. Just like debt, welfare, and immigration, it seems that this issue was put in the “too difficult box” by Labour, according to Charles Clarke, the former Home and Education Secretary. As Conservatives, the public spat between the current Education Secretary and Home Secretary was troubling, but we should take heart in the fact that the row took place. If this Conservative government is willing to argue publicly over extremism, it may now try to deal with all the causes of it more comprehensively in a joined up way across government.
There is a growing list of areas in which concerns about school governance continue to be raised, but the debate should not be allowed to narrow into one about extremism. If this happens, it will once again represent a missed opportunity – because the core issues will be overlooked. Snap Ofsted inspections, the teaching of a core curriculum, and the promotion of British values are all welcome responses to the concerns about Birmingham’s schools, but they do not deal with the root cause. The fact that all of these schools serve communities which, over the course of time and through no fault of their own, have become predominantly of one ethnicity and one religion lies at the heart of the problem.
Segregation in our cities has been allowed to go unchecked for too long, and only the course of time can now fix this. We do not interfere in the private housing sector, and where people choose to live is largely driven by affluence. However, we can do something about social housing and where we build new homes. This interference in the housing sector and planning is essential, otherwise the long term reinforcement of segregation will continue and have a knock on effect on our schools.
The other area to focus on is the current framework of comprehensive education under local authority control, in which the catchment system of admission is too prescriptive in nature. How can it be right that our children do not get exposed to someone of a different ethnic background until well into adulthood? Much of the understanding, social development and outlook get formed in the school class room and playground. The interactions, friendships, relationships, and the very values we are all searching for are the practical parts of the citizenship theory currently taught from a textbook in a classroom.
But how do you make all this happen? Do you, for example, allow local authorities to manipulate catchment areas? This is an easy win if it does not cause too much disruption. The school I attended and later served as a governor ended up in this situation, by accident rather than design: nevertheless, it serves a mixed intake from a range of different areas and backgrounds.
Faith schools have a voluntary arrangement to take a certain proportion of children from other denominations. This could be introduced in state schools, too, but the idea of quotas is not very attractive, because the thought of bussing children around does not sit comfortably with many parents – especially when their children may end up at an underperforming school.
A smaller number of large super schools are yet another way, if these can be managed and run properly without affecting standards. Specialist schools that select on the basis of subject is yet another basis on which admission can be differentiated.
If you have great schools, every parent will want their children to go to them irrespective of where those schools are located. The independent sector is proof of this fact, and the holy grail of education is thus to get to a situation in which there is greater choice in the form of free schools, academies and even grammar schools, with autonomy on admission. This, in essence, is current policy – but without scrutiny and governance it can also backfire, and you can end up with the situation we have in Birmingham.
There are probably many more suggestions the comments section will generate, but most will pain many Conservatives greatly. Interference at a local level goes against every conservative principle we all hold dear, but when there is no alternative the consequences of not acting, as we have seen in banking and now schools, are too great. As you can see from this article this subject is in the “too difficult” box, but leaving it there should not be our policy option.