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The Rife Team

Whose Trojan Horse Was It?


Dan Squire unleashes a blistering attack on the politics at play in the recent scandal around extremism in Birmingham schools.

In the wake of a recent Ofsted report, the news last week was plastered with stories about a possible Islamic agenda in some Birmingham schools, In response to the report, Education Secretary Michael Gove said the following as part of his statement in parliament: ‘…schools that are proven to have failed will be taken over, put under new leadership, and taken in a fresh new direction. Any school could now be subject to rigorous, on-the-spot inspections, with no advanced warning, and no opportunities to conceal failure. And we will put the promotion of British values at the heart of what every school has to deliver to children…

The Ofsted report warned that some schools in Birmingham had succumbed to a ‘culture of fear and intimidation’ under pressure from Muslim governors, and the implication from Gove and the media was that these schools were veering away from ‘British values’. I don’t want to get into the problems inherent in Michael Gove’s juxtaposition of ‘British values’ with Islamic ones, but I hope the issues are obvious. Whether there really was any kind of nefarious plot in Birmingham is neither here nor there for me (the schools involved vehemently deny it, for the record), because I’m more interested in the government’s responsibility and response for the problem.

Please bear with me, because my point might not seem immediately relevant, but I hope the argument will be made clear. I want to talk about Academies.

Since the Coalition introduced the Academies Act in 2010, which supposedly allowed high-performing state schools to academise for greater autonomy from the national curriculum, the government has been pushing schools across the country to make the conversion. Whether or not Academies are actually any better than the schools they replace is a grey area, but it is low-achieving schools, not high-performers, that have been feeling the brunt. In North Bristol, where I went to school, we saw three of the four state secondary schools reopen as Academies in the space of one academic year. Whatever the reason, and however uncorroborated by evidence the long-term Academy plan is, the government opened over four times as many Academies in their first year in office as had ever been opened, and then fourteen times more again before the 2013/14 year is even finished. 

Michael Gove is right when he says that schools live in a culture of fear and intimidation, but not necessarily from radical Islam. Nationwide, it is the dreaded Ofsted inspection that has teachers from struggling schools shaking in their boots. The prospect of being politically pressured into academisation is a scary one, and various protests from parents and teachers across the country have been ignored by the government. If Ofsted finds a school lacking, you can be sure that a note with the big, red word ‘Academy’ will be coming through the door very soon after.

Why would teachers fear becoming an Academy? Partly because of fear about job changes or redundancies, the threat of increased government interference (despite the Act’s promises of autonomy), and intrusion from parents and governors who don’t really know the best way to run a school – exactly the problem we’re now facing in Birmingham. Four of the five schools highlighted in the Ofsted report were academies; these were schools that the government converted to give them more autonomy, and to give the parents and governors more say. Why exactly are the government now complaining that the power they relinquished has been misused, as if they could never have seen it coming?

Many low-achieving schools often do not want to become Academies for just these reasons, so many teachers are naturally terrified of Ofsted inspections. To combat Ofsted, whose primary measure of a school is their exam grade performance, teachers are pushing kids to achieve higher grades so the school can hit their targets. This has a lot of knock-on effects. Schools look for supposedly easier options like some BTEC courses that count for several GCSE grades; pupils are force-fed exam answers, instead of being taught to enjoy a subject; whole year groups are homogenised at a generic C-Grade because it is the path of least resistance, instead of pushing high-achievers or supporting low-achievers. And inevitably, pastoral care suffers in the shadow of ever-increasing targets.

Ofsted doesn’t look at these consequences – they look at results. And I believe that the culture of fear that Ofsted instils in schools, combined with their neglect of anything other than exam statistics, is just as much a cause of the terrible situation in Birmingham and across the country as any limited faction of pushy governors is. Ofsted pressure forces schools to abandon pastoral care in exchange for results, and if they still fail on exam day, academisation opens the door for rogue interference in the school’s running (from people like these Birmingham governors). Michael Gove’s suggestions, which promote increased academisation and increased powers for Ofsted, are ludicrous and potentially ruinous. Michael Gove is shamelessly jumping on the media’s Islamophobic bandwagon to further his own policies and tighten his increasingly autocratic control of the curriculum.

The government cannot have it both ways, and cannot be allowed to turn this situation into their political advantage. Why did external elements have a chance to exercise intimidation (allegedly) in these Birmingham academies? Was it because the Academies Act gave them the mandate? Or was it because Ofsted didn’t take any notice of issues beyond the GCSE pass rates?

Perhaps if Michael Gove were to stop blindly academising, and make the necessary changes that Ofsted needs to regain schools’ trust and be seen as a force for good, they might be finally taking steps towards a more constructive system in which this misuse of power could never have gone unreported, or might not have even happened.

What do you think? Are you at an academy? Tweet us your comments @rifemag