In past articles I have argued that each part of the local government finance system is dysfunctional. This one was going to be about what to do about that.
But I couldn’t resist giving a view on the Birmingham schools issue especially as I am now unconstrained by any particular institutional loyalty.
When I first read the Trojan Horse letter in November it seemed obviously designed to stir up racial and religious antagonism and undermine community cohesion rather than reveal a blueprint on how to subvert and take over schools. Nevertheless, we asked the counter terrorism unit to look at it and they quickly confirmed that there was no terrorist threat revealed in the letter.
The perpetrators, no doubt frustrated by the lack of an overt response, continued to widen the circle of schools, media and officials the letter was sent to until they finally got the response they wanted. The worry is that the authors have achieved their aim. The recent Ofsted inspection of schools in Birmingham couldn’t find a conspiracy.
The letter wove together different issues in different schools that in the main the council’s education department was aware of and was dealing with. Several were to do with governance, and the council had on several occasions to take robust action to intervene with governing bodies to secure school improvement.
This is not unusual. With more than 400 schools in the city there are inevitably many disputes and concerns that frequently arise, ranging from embezzlement of public funds to one dispute between two headteachers that lasted over a decade about a car parking space. No doubt many of these are reported to higher authorities and the desks of Whitehall officials are awash with complaints from schools all over the country. I make that point because the Department for Education has already been warned about the next scandal that breaks.
One matter, that deserves serious debate in a calm and measured way, is getting lost in allegations of indoctrination and control. That is – the right balance between rigid national prescription about curriculum, school uniforms and the 1,001 things that happen daily in a school and the extent to which local choices reflecting the mores of local communities should be allowed.
It is clear that at least some poor judgments were made by some schools if we accept that the list read out by Gove to Parliament was accurate. But some of these are matters that in a different context would not be seen as controversial. We have had segregation of sexes in British state schools for some considerable time with single sex schools. Even Eton discriminates against girls by not admitting them.
It was common practice at my school for Catholics to avoid morning assembly and RE on religious grounds even though it was a secular school. Methodists (of which there is a strong tradition in Birmingham) shun tombolas and raffles because they are a form of gambling. We wouldn’t ban someone wearing a crucifix at school so why ban a headscarf if someone believes it should be worn?
We may not have been clear where the line on these matters falls, but the reaction has been disproportionate, without proper debate or dialogue with parents and local communities.
It really is inconceivable, if these matters had been that serious and so all-pervasive as to render the schools inadequate, that Ofsted failed to even pick up a hint of them when literally a matter of some short months ago it found some of these schools outstanding. It is part of Ofsted’s narrative that it should be seen as immaculate, so apparently there has been a rapid deterioration that the local authority didn’t do enough to combat. Hard to square that with various statements that the DfE and others were told of issues back as far as 2008.
What is really troubling is the loss of any local voice in the story. It illustrates that we run a centralised state focused on micro management of every aspect of public and private life. How did the governance of five schools in Birmingham become a national issue that required the personal attention of two secretaries of state and the prime minister?
If next week there’s an issue about poor governance at a school in Bradford or Surrey why won’t that be a national issue? Unable to actually control the day to day running of every school what we will get is ever more state regulation that further crushes local innovation and choice.
There is, however, something that does need national attention urgently – how we should fund local government, including schools!
Stephen Hughes, former chief executive, Birmingham City Council