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Devolution going in wrong direction at ‘Trojan Horse’ school – Saleem

Devolution going in wrong direction at ‘Trojan Horse’ school – Saleem

🕔25.Aug 2015

I recently stepped down from chairing the board of one of the most challenging education trusts in the country: CORE, the sponsor of Park View and Nansen Schools, writes Waheed Saleem. I fear that Whitehall is exerting too much centralised control, leaving parents and the community – especially those of the Muslim faith – unable to play their full role as governors.

Park View and Nansen were at the centre of the so called ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations last year. I was elected by the Board of Directors in March. My resignation was, in part, the result of what I think were rather sensational headlines in the Birmingham Mail. They highlighted an error I made as a young councillor, some thirteen years ago, for which I was rightly disciplined and which has remained in the public domain.

The ‘powers to be’ became nervous about negative publicity around me and the impact this was having on the Trust and the schools. Clearly, the Trust and its schools are already under an enormous amount of scrutiny and are sensitive to poor media coverage.

I would like to put on record the fact that the Department for Education (DfE) and the Education Funding Agency (EFA) were made fully aware of my past mistake and felt, like many others, this was not an issue that would affect the contribution I could make in 2014.

My job was to lead the Trust, support the schools through the changes required and remove them from ‘special measures.’ Considering my considerable experience of leading other organisations through transformation and my understanding and connections with the community, I had a track record to give the Trust and education bodies every confidence.

Parents, local politicians, students, businesses and the wider community are all key stakeholders in schools. I had worked in the local community overseeing health services for over four years. I was able to understand the community, having developed significant relationships with key ‘players’, local politicians and business people. Therefore, upon appointment I was able to build relationships – that were previously non-existent – with parents and the community in order to support the Trust through its journey.

The importance of the community as key stakeholders is, I believe, being slowly eroded and replaced by direction from Whitehall. To me, schools need to be embedded in the community, serving their customers – the students and parents – and reflect the community in their governance. Of course, schools are part of a national system too and regulated by Ofsted. However, in Park View it seemed as if Ofsted was running the schools, not inspecting them!

My resignation came as a result of pressure from the EFA who asked for changes in leadership. The official line: ‘we want to see quicker progress’. However, ask anyone involved and they would say progress had been excellent in the circumstances. Any turnaround requires a period to lay the foundations and to ensure the transformation is sustainable for the long term.

Just last week, Park View was celebrating a significant improvement in GCSE results. The number of children achieving three or more A* or A grades in 2015 rose to 27 per cent, up six percentage points year-on-year.

The number of students achieving A* or A in Additional Science rose from 14 per cent in 2014 to 35 per cent this year. A total of 54 per cent of Pupil Premium-eligible students achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A*-C: one per cent more than students from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.

These two particular areas were highlighted in the last Ofsted monitoring report as being of concern resulting in a ‘not making enough progress’ judgment. The results prove this was far from the case and that the school, teachers and most importantly the pupils were making reasonable progress. I wonder if Ofsted will apologise for their inaccurate judgement and review the lead inspector.

However, I’m concerned that the progress made may now stall as a result of the community and politicians losing faith in the new leadership because they are seen as ‘outsiders’ who have been ‘installed’ in the Trust and schools.

The question that arises from this lack of representation of the local community in key leadership positions is if it is unique because of ‘Trojan Horse,’ with the ‘invisible hand’ of Whitehall required to ensure these issues never happen again? Or, is it because leading Muslims cannot be trusted in positions of power in education?

We all know that ‘Whitehall’ doesn’t necessarily know best. In fact, the current trend is devolution away from Whitehall. This Tory Government’s education policy is to ‘free’ schools from political control, thus the expansion of free schools and Academies where parents and the local community can take over or open new institutions.

However, in the case of CORE we had senior officials from DfE and EFA sitting in our Board meetings to keep an eye on things. There were constant conversations happening with individuals involved in the Trust and many of these were not conducted through the Chair. I began to question these ‘unusual’ interactions and asked for them to be formalised to comply with good governance. After all, that was one of the criticisms of the previous administration!

Every child deserves the best educational experience and for this to happen there is a need to ensure the governing body, be that the local governing body or the board of directors of an Academy Trust, represents the local community as well as having the key skills to take on leadership roles.

This is important as it will enable decisions to be made with a full understanding of the cultural and religious backgrounds of the students and other local factors. After all, students learn from their environment and families, not just in schools. Furthermore, being able to communicate with and understand parental expectations is as important as meeting national and local targets.

I fear we are in danger of making Islamophobia an acceptable basis of conversation, as Baroness Warsi said it has “passed the dinner table test”. The ‘Trojan Horse’ affair has contributed to this notion that Muslims cannot be trusted in positions of power, especially in the field of education. This cannot be allowed to seep through and become acceptable in our city and across the country as it will alienate individuals who could make important contributions to our education system.

And that goes for the media too, who continue to be obsessed with the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair. I wish they, especially the local media, would get the message the horse has bolted. Let’s move on. It’s disappointing that even though some of us made the decision to stand up and support the schools that were left battered by the crisis, we have become the target of cheap attacks.

After my experience at CORE, I am beginning to think that the devolution of power in education to parents and the community that is lauded by the Government applies only in selected circumstances. Some communities are left to feel they need to prove themselves acceptable to the ‘powers to be’ before they are allowed to take on positions of power in schools. This becomes a significant issue for the community that feel ‘done to’ as opposed to being able to take control to support their children in achieving what every parent wants – a bright future for their children.

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