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Ofsted right to ignore teachers’ fury and ask difficult questions about Trojan Horse extremism

Ofsted right to ignore teachers’ fury and ask difficult questions about Trojan Horse extremism

🕔24.Apr 2014

Ofsted inspectors who visited 18 Birmingham schools at the heart of the Trojan Horse allegations adopted an unusual approach to the matter in hand.

Rather than checking out academic achievement, the watchdog asked about the type of people leading Friday prayers, teachers’ attitudes to sex education and homosexuality, and wondered whether there were adequate safeguards to prevent children from becoming radicalised.

The education establishment doesn’t like, or even understand, this approach. But given the context of Trojan Horse – allegations that non-faith schools are being radicalised through a stealth campaign – what other questions would anyone really expect to have been asked?

Christine Quinn, the executive principal of Ninestiles Academy, in Acocks Green, described Ofsted’s visit to her school as “somewhat harrowing”.

Ms Quinn told the Guardian newspaper: “The inspectors checked whether the school taught citizenship and sex education, They were trying to establish whether we had the mechanisms in place to know if elements of radicalism or extremism were in our school, and whether we knew how to recognise it, and that we had an extensive policies on citizenship, personal, social and health to counteract any such elements.”

Mohammed Ashraf, a governor at Golden Hillock school, complained that inspectors asked “strange questions”, such as “If a child said he was gay what would the school do?” and “Who leads your Friday prayer?”

NUT Birmingham spokesman Roger King said some members felt inspectors had asked “inappropriate” questions, such as “asking the staff, ‘Are you homophobic?’ and asking the girl pupils who didn’t happen to be sitting next to boys, ‘are you made to sit in different places?’”

That teachers and governors should think such questions are odd or inappropriate reflects Birmingham City Council’s insistence that Trojan Horse has nothing to do with extremism.

The council continues to stick with the line that what’s happening here is a misunderstanding between our liberal education system and the stricter Muslim approach desired by Birmingham’s “new communities”. This has been described as the ‘nothing to see here, move along’ approach.

There is a far more sinister sub-text to Trojan Horse which few people are talking about. And that is a possibility, let’s put it no higher than a possibility, that conditions exist under which extremists could infiltrate classrooms with a view to turning young people into tomorrow’s terrorists.

This explains Ofsted’s line of questioning. It also explains the decision by Education Secretary Michael Gove to appoint, over the council’s head, former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism expert Peter Clarke as Education Commissioner with responsibility to investigate Trojan Horse.

Mr Gove’s decision has been greeted with fury by Birmingham’s political establishment, with everyone from councillors, school governors, teachers, MPs, the Church, even the Chief Constable of the West Midlands, condemning the appointment as unnecessary and unwise, and warning of great damage to harmonious community relations.

Father Oliver Cross, vice-chairman of governors at Regents Park, one of the 18 schools under investigation, described Mr Clarke’s appointment as a disaster for community cohesion in east Birmingham.

He claimed: “Local government have wilfully allowed legitimate inquiry into the running of state schools in Birmingham, to become a full-blown attack on some of the most impoverished areas of our nation.”

Father Cross also noted: “Islamic parents, in attempting to bring their children to maturity in their faith, are not likely to entrust the teaching of their faith to teachers of varying faiths and none.”

And therein lays the nub of a very complex problem. Muslim parents want their children to be educated in their faith. But that is a far from straightforward matter in a secular school legally obliged to deliver the national curriculum.

Trojan Horse has re-opened a can of worms that city councillors from all political parties have kept firmly hidden for 20 years or more for fear that any investigation into such matters could quickly get out of control. Looking the other way, though, is no longer an option.

Birmingham’s political and community leaders would be well advised to consult the Government’s Prevent Strategy which was presented to the House of Commons in June 2011 by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and gained cross-party support.

The document notes that of the 127 convictions for terrorism-related offences associated with Al Qa’ida, 11 have been committed by people in the age range of 15-19.

The youngest person convicted of terrorism-related offences in this country in recent years was 16. He was 15 at the time when he was recruited by a terrorist group. At least three separate Al Qa’ida-related operations in this country have involved people who, to varying extents, became involved in extremism while they were at school.

It is therefore absurd, and quite possibly dangerous, to blithely assume that schools in Birmingham are entirely removed from any possibility that young Muslims are at risk of being radicalised.

The Prevent Strategy notes: “We have seen no systematic attempt to recruit or radicalise people in full time education in this country, either in the state or independent sector. But we do know that some people who are supportive of terrorist groups and ideologies have sought and sometimes gained positions in schools or in groups which work closely with young people. One of the 7/7 bombers, for example, worked as a learning mentor with children at a school in Leeds.”

Six years ago the Department for Education produced a toolkit to help schools prevent what it described as “violent extremism”. The toolkit sought to “raise awareness of the risks from violent extremism and provided guidance on developing a positive and inclusive ethos that championed democratic values and human rights.” How widely this has been used in Birmingham, or whether it is being used at all, is a key questions Ofsted must ask.

The Prevent Strategy is a measured document which does not presume that schools are breeding grounds for terrorism. It does, though, sound a warning about some schools “encouraging intolerance.”

It states: “We regard Preventwork with children and with schools as an important part of the strategy. But this work needs to be proportionate. It must not start from a misplaced assumption that there is a significant problem that needs to be resolved.

“We have seen some evidence of very limited radicalisation of children by extremist or terrorist groups. There is further evidence that some schools – and some supplementary schools – have used teaching materials which may encourage intolerance.

“And we know that some extremist or terrorist organisations have held positions of influence in education or in other organisations working closely with children. But these issues must be kept in perspective. And they are not all within the remit of Prevent.”

The document ends with a timely warning for Birmingham: “Working with DfE, Ofsted will ensure that inspectors have the necessary knowledge and expertise to determine whether extremist and intolerant beliefs are being promoted in a school and then to take appropriate action.”

Ofsted has undertaken the necessary work at 18 schools and results of the inspections will be published soon. It is then that Birmingham collectively will be able to take an informed view about the accuracy of the Trojan Horse claims.

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