Successive governments have allowed schools greater autonomy and community involvement. Many successful academies and free schools have sprung from this soil. But the “Trojan horse” controversy in Birmingham schools – a city-wide takeover plot by people pushing an agenda of conservative Islam, according to Ofsted – exposes an ideological flaw in the revolution. How much “freedom” to teach what you like is too much?
The Education Secretary Michael Gove has proudly “liberated” more schools from state control and the national curriculum. But his department cannot micro-manage individual schools’ progress, and his solution, snap inspections, is a reactive measure that will leave his team on the back foot and may burden teachers in good schools.
The broader question for Mr Gove and fellow ministers remains: having determined to shrink the state, how can they do so while maintaining standards – and the ability to intervene decisively?
Those Birmingham schools complain of political hysteria, but explanations are necessary once the chief schools inspector reports gender segregation, a school trip (to Saudi Arabia) closed to non-Muslim pupils, the term “white prostitutes” used in assemblies and, at one school, the invitation of a radical preacher. Even as isolated incidents, these would demand action. Against the backdrop of an “organised campaign” to “alter [schools’] character and ethos” they prompt a national argument about “British values” which seems likely to create more heat than light.
Pity the pupils there who are trying to sit exams!