Where does religious conservatism end and Islamist extremism begin? Are faith schools more vulnerable to the latter? Are academies and free schools more at risk than schools in which local authorities have more control? Findings by Ofsted from schools in Birmingham trailed in this morning’s papers make these questions inevitable: these will be released later today. What happened in some schools in the city has already contributed to a falling-out between two of the Government’s most senior Ministers, a public apology by one of them, the resignation of one of the Home Secretary’s special advisers and the stepping-in of the Prime Minister himself. The fracas is ruffling political, educational and cultural nerves, and re-opening another question across government: how should counter-extremism policy work?
It’s important to grasp at the start that not all of the 21 schools in which Ofsted has carried out emergency inspections have been criticised: indeed, Ninestiles School, Small Heath School and Washwood Heath Academy were all praised. But evidence was found elsewhere of the axeing of parts of the curriculum, bars on sex education, the segregation of boys and girls, discrimination against non-Muslim pupils, prejudice against gay people, and the presence of extreme speakers and the preaching of anti-western doctrine at religious assemblies. Some of the more colourful allegations include children chanting anti-Christian slogans at Oldknow academy primary school in Birmingham and being banned from dancing at Park View Secondary. Five of the schools will be placed in special measures.
Two of those questions can be swiftly disposed of. None of the schools concerned are faith schools. Some are academies, but others are not. One point thus shines out amidst the claims: if teachers or governors or both collude to buck the law and their obligations, even the best-designed system will find it hard to catch them out. This helps to explain why Ofsted has now condemned some schools which only recently it praised. Inspections require notice, and notice apparently gave some of these schools the opportunity to put on a Potemkin show for the inspectors. In some cases, special Christian-friendly lessons and assemblies were rustled up at short notice the first time round – rather in the manner of the Soviet show prisons of the 1930s that were put together to deceive and impress gullible western visitors.
The first question is harder to grapple with. There are schools in Britain with a conservative Jewish or Christian flavour. Such schools will want to teach, for example, that marriage exists between a man and a woman; sex education in such schools will stress self-restraint. The wishes of Muslim parents in these respects should carry no less weight than those of Christian and Jewish ones. The issues become more complex still when non-state schools are concerned. For example, boys and girls should not usually sit separately in state school classes. For the state to impose such a condition on non-state classes would be a step too far. None the less, there are bedrock truths amidst these swirling mists. State schools exist to offer children life opportunities and a full education. And an integral part of that education is integration itself – into the institutions, norms and culture of Britain.
It is precisely this claim which Islamism rejects, since it is at odds with the liberal democratic project of which this country is a part. Sometimes, it is violent: the horror of 7/7, or the terrible murder of Lee Rigby, are reminders of that. Sometimes, it is not. But its aim is always the same: a polity in which citizens are treated on the basis of religion rather than common citizenship, and in which Islam itself has special privileges. This is what extremists are getting at when they put up posters in East London claiming that parts of it are a “shariah-controlled zone”. This is what is claimed with regard to the distribution of grants to community groups in Tower Hamlets – a borough in which proper election counts are now compromised. This is what a preacher in Newham praised before being adopted as a Conservative candidate. (“The Islamic state is the greatest contribution to humanity,” he said.)
Michael Gove and the Government must now wrestle with what to do about Birmingham: educationalists and lawyers will grapple with the practicalities of spot inspections on schools, and perhaps of taking them out of the hands of the local council – which seems to have been a particularly sluggish one over many years. But there is a bigger matter at stake of which Birmingham’s segregated classes and compromised schools are a sign. In essence, Islamism presents an ideological challenge to western democracies no less serious in nature, though very different in form, from the totalitarian ideologies of the last century. During the post-war period, communists attempted to infiltrate Britain’s trade unions, claiming to speak for ordinary working people; today, Islamists manoeuvre to infiltrate Britain’s civic institutions, claiming to speak for ordinary British Muslims.
Ministers agree that policy should seek to counter Islamist and other extremisms, as well as violent extremism: David Cameron has decisively and rightly broken with Labour’s agonising over the issue. What they find it harder to agree upon is who should do what. Watching Gove, Theresa May, other Ministers and their disagreements during the last few days has been like watching one of those football teams in which players pout, shrug, point and complain to and at each other – rather than get on with the arduous but necessary business of winning and keeping the ball. The core of the Home Secretary’s case is that the Education Department is in charge of schools, the Business Department responsible for Universities, the Justice Department for prisons, and CLG in charge of counter-extremism as whole. The Home Office, in her view, has its work cut out dealing with terrorism itself.
During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher went over the heads of the trade union leaders to trade union members themselves – the vast majority of whom had no time for the Soviet system at all. In doing so, she implemented enough reform to see off the problem completely. Cameron needs to find a contemporary way of meeting a similar challenge – namely, going over the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat Islami-linked Islamists to Britain’s ordinary Muslims. Nearly all of them want no more than to get on with their work and lives like the rest of their fellow citizens. There are two pillars to such an approach. First, a politician needs to be in charge in Downing Street itself, driving the policy through the squabbling departments. Second, there must surely be a role for the security services. If that requires more staff and a bigger budget, so be it.