Leading article: Serious issues and sloppy politics

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In the House of Commons this week David Cameron raised the issue of two schools – one in Slough, another in north London – run by the Shakhsiyah Foundation. The Conservative leader alleged that the foundation has links to the radical Islamist group, Hizb ut Tahrir. Mr Cameron also claimed the schools had received public money from a Government fund set up to combat radicalisation and that neither institution had been registered or inspected by Ofsted.

These are grave charges. Unfortunately, the Tory leader does not appear to have checked his facts before making them. It turns out that both schools were, in fact, registered and inspected by the authorities and that the public money they received came from a fund set up to enable parents to access free nursery care.

Yet Mr Cameron's biggest mistake was his attempt to use this issue to score party political points. Despite his sloppy attack, Mr Cameron is correct to point out that the influence of religious extremism in schools is a genuine problem. But it is a problem that, if the Tories form the next government, they would struggle with just as much as the present administration.

The Conservatives, after all, are committed to encouraging more charities and faith groups to set up schools. And they have spoken of the hope that these institutions will cultivate a distinctive ethos. This is broadly the right direction for policy. The top-down and prescriptive government approach to schools over the past decade has run into the sand. But greater autonomy for schools and a greater role for the charity sector in education do provide an opportunity for extremists to infiltrate the system.

There are legitimate questions too about whether the present inspection system is capable of detecting radicalisation. Oftsed has said that it could find no evidence that these two schools were promoting anti-Western values. But Ofsted inspectors are not trained to spot indoctrination. That might well have to change.

Mr Cameron raised an issue of genuine public importance. The pity is that, by setting off half-cocked and trying to exploit it for narrow political gain, he only served to divert public attention away from the real problem.

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