Education, Education, Education – Part Two: Take It On Faith

  As will be news to absolutely no-one paying the slightest bit of attention to the universe, a number of schools in Birmingham have recently been criticised by Ofsted for enforcing a conservative Islamic curriculum and creating a ‘culture of fear and intimidation’. Five schools, out of 21 which were subjected to snap inspections, have been placed in special measures.

  This move comes in the wake of a (probably faked) letter leaked earlier this year threatening a ‘Trojan Horse’ plan for Islamist extremists to take over a number of schools in the area, in order to inculcate the children their with strict Islamic values. This story has been churning away for over three months now, and up until this point I have steered clear of it. The reason is pretty simple: there wasn’t actually any evidence on either side of the debate. 

  This didn’t stop the mainstream media, of course, who are traditionally rather less concerned with facts than selling newspapers/attracting web views. Indeed, the ‘Trojan Horse’ story has been run in the usual overdramatised way, with helpful interjections by the likes of Theresa May and Michael Gove making it all the easier to sensationalise the story and cloud the actually very important issues with senseless mud-flinging. Once again, this should surprise exactly no-one.

  Now that the inspections have been completed, steps have been taken and the dust has at least started to settle, perhaps we can take a sober and rational look at the issue. Let’s give it a go.

Trojan Horse or Red Herring?

  Red herring is the short answer. Despite the absolutely incredible scrutiny that has been brought to bear on these schools over the past few weeks, there remains no credible evidence that the original ‘Trojan Horse’  plot ever existed. Ofsted have stated publicly that ‘no evidence of radicalisation’ is to be found within the classrooms of the schools so accused. So that’s that. Time to go home, then?

  Not quite. The original letter, hoax though it is now thought to have been, has actually had the benefit of unearthing some very disturbing goings-on in the five schools mentioned above. Whilst nothing on the level of an Islamist conspiracy, there are some things here which we have to take very seriously indeed. One school in particular – Oldknow Academy – was described as ‘trying to promote a narrow faith-based ideology’, and all five show serious signs of an unhealthy relationship with the Islamic faith in what are – ostensibly – secular academies.

  Whilst banning Christmas and organising Muslim-only trips to Saudi Arabia at the taxpayers’ expense  are hardly evidence of an extremist plot – and those who have decribed the Ofsted report as a ‘damning verdict’ are clearly guilty of some serious overexaggeration – they certainly aren’t the kinds of things we want in our schools. The fact that this situation has been allowed to develop, threatening children’s education and their ability to interact with those of other cultures, is a damning indictment of existing scrutiny procedures – not only Ofsted, who should have picked up on this much sooner, but also Birmingham City Council and the Department for Education itself (which, as most of these schools are academies, is directly responsible – see my earlier article on just what exactly I think of that). 

  The relevant authorities have been shown to be woefully incompetent, and we need an urgent review of procedures to make sure this kind of thing never happens again. The sad fact is, though, that the government in general is perfectly happy for such ‘narrow faith-based ideologies’ to dominate education – as long as the correct protocol is observed.

Give Me A Child Until He Is Seven, and I Will Give You The Man

  This old (and sexist) Jesuit quote belies the fact that indoctrination of the young is no modern problem. Yes, the religious orders have been doing it for centuries, if not millennia – and the sad fact is, if Park View Educational Trust (which runs three of the five schools placed under special measures) had registered the schools as a faith-based academy or free school, all would most likely have been well.

  Faith schools have always existed in the UK, of course – indeed, go back far enough and they were pretty much the only schools available anywhere. A modern faith schools has to follow the national curriculum, except that they are not required to teach about other religions – just their own. Now, I happen to think that is unacceptable in a multicultural society – children have the right to be educated in ALL areas, not just those selected for them by religious demagogues – but I realise that many people are perfectly okay with this. 

  What I don’t think many people would be okay with is a curriculum entirely dictated by the faith of a schools leadership; one which teaches creationism in science lessons or forbids arts subjects such as music on religious grounds. But this is exactly what is allowed under the academy and free school systems, which makes explicit provision for faith groups to take over schools and gut the curriculum accordingly.

  The mistake Park View made was registering their schools as secular academies. If they’d thought to classify them as Islamic free schools – or Catholic, Sikh or Jewish for that matter – their actions would have been perfectly legal. Other faith academies have already been investigated for similar, and in many cases worse actions, but whilst the Al-Madinah school was closed down for making female teachers wear headscarves, the Yesodey Hatorah Jewish girls’ school in London is still going strong, despite censoring students’ exam papers to remove evolution-based questions.

  It is no surprise that Yesodey Hatorah serves an Orthodox Jewish community which is so culturally isolated that some of its members, born and bred in London, have German accents because the only adults they were exposed to growing up were German-born Jews. These kinds of ‘narrow, faith-based ideologies’ are allowed to persist, though they are easily as damaging as that in Park View, if not more so.

  I do think there is an element of Islamophobia to this – Muslim schools like Al-Madinah or effectively Muslim schools like Park View and Oldknow are, rightly, cracked down on whilst Jewish schools like Yesodey Hatorah and Christian schools like those run by the sinister-sounding ‘Exclusive Brethren’ escape notice. There’s also the fact that some of these schools are free schools or private schools rather than academies, and thus have even more freedom to manipulate their pupils’ education. But whatever the reason, it’s got to stop.

A Not-so-Radical Solution

  Free schools, Academies, Faith Schools, Private Schools – all of these allow unacceptable intrusions of faith into children’s lives. All of these allow religious organisations to indoctrinate the young and vulnerable with their beliefs. Whether you agree with their doctrines or not is immaterial – as adults, the choice is yours. But as children, you tend to believe what you are told. And if you are being blasted with religious dogma at schools as well as at home, what chance of developing into a free-thinking, sceptical individual do you really have?

  The solution is obvious: Abolish all Faith, Free, Academy and Private schools. Replace them with state-maintained, secular schools which can protect children against indoctrination rather than being complicit in it. Let’s give our children a rounded, full education, covering all aspects of the sciences, arts and humanities – as well as technical and vocational skills training – to allow them to become well-balanced adults.

  Then, if they wish, they can pick a religion, when they have all the evidence, all the facts and all the cognitive skills at their command to do so properly. I reckon I know what the result of that will be, though. But that’s a topic for another time…


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