Every school is meant to be religious

In 2014 the “Trojan Horse” scandal broke in Birmingham.  It was said that a group of hard-line conservative Muslim parents and teachers had set out to systematically take over and “islamify” state schools in Birmingham.  At the heart of the lurid headlines was the Park View Academy Trust.  For years, Park View School had effectively served a local Muslim community and successfully modeled an approach to education that had transformed that community’s academic attainment.  The approach had been so successful that the school had been encouraged to become an Academy and then to take over nearby schools and extend its model – rapidly becoming an Academy Trust responsible for three schools with further expansion planned.  Now, instead of being lauded for its approach, it was being condemned.

Over the last three years some of Park View’s teaching staff have faced allegations of “Unacceptable Professional Conduct” before the teacher regulator and there has been a series of misconduct cases.  I am a barrister and I have represented some of those involved and watched other cases as an interested bystander.

The cases were poorly prosecuted by lawyers with little apparent knowledge of or interest in the world of education and the problems posed by disengaged communities.  The teachers at the centre of the Park View allegations have now been told that the conduct of the  lawyers was so bad that it would undermine public confidence in the regulatory process to publish any decision.  The legal process has been drawn out, damaging for all those concerned (witnesses for both sides, accused teachers and the wider community) and has had no outcome.  

The prosecutions felt, at times, strange.  Innocuous events were presented as examples of a radical agenda.  Normal school practices, such as boys and girls doing PE separately, were viewed with suspicion.  Normal school discipline was cited in some way as evidence of a religiously conservative agenda.  Scraps of hearsay evidence, e.g a child telling an inspector something,  were cited as proof that the curriculum was curtailed despite the fact that no further enquiry was made of pupils or those teaching in the schools.  Sex education policies compiled with an eye to the cultural norms of the pupils at the school were described as unacceptable – despite government guidance making clear that such an approach is appropriate.

Some of the accused teachers and their supporters perceive a political agenda behind the cases.  This is understandable as it is undoubtedly true that the allegations about Birmingham schools have been continuously cited as evidence that more needs to be done to tackle extremism.  That has suited certain parts of our political class who look for easy explanations of the complex problem of why some of our young people are so disengaged from our society that they aspire to emulate those nihilist death eaters of ISIS.  There is a suspicion that taking action against visible conservative Muslim cultural practice allows the political class to be seen to be doing something without necessarily doing the hard work needed to make us all safer.

Whatever the politics, what those of us who defended the allegations about Park View sought to do was to demonstrate that all the school did, including having a prayer club and, yes it’s true, playing a call to prayer on loudspeakers, was in accordance with government guidance and accepted educational practice.  We aimed to show that the same practices that had been lauded in 2012 for their ability to engage pupils in the educational enterprise and in turn enable them to find success in mainstream British society were now being cited as evidence that something was going badly wrong.

In reaching an understanding of why Park View’s practices were both lawful and good I had to overcome my own preconceived notion that a non-faith school should be a secular space.  That understanding was derived from my own experience of the British state school system.  I attended two entirely secular secondary schools.  No prayers were ever said and assemblies, if they took place at all, were a series of notices followed by a song, not a hymn.  I believed that schools were secular spaces unless affiliated to a wider religious institution.  To my mind at least, only faith schools “did God”.  I assumed that my experience was the universal experience.  I was therefore surprised to learn in 2014 that the call to prayer was broadcast over loud speakers at a Birmingham state secular secondary school.   At that time I shared the mainstream understanding that, as it was not a faith school, Park View was, as per the Daily Telegraph, “officially a secular institution”.

My assumption about the secular nature of non-faith education seems to have been shared by Peter Clarke.  Peter Clarke is a former counter-terrorism police officer appointed by the government to investigate the goings-on in Birmingham.  His report is still available online.  Within it the word secular is used to describe the educational space that one would expect to find in a non-faith British state school.  Peter Clarke is not an educationalist and can, perhaps, be forgiven for this error.   This error informed his whole approach to the central question – was there too much religion in the schools he was scrutinising?

A brief word about an aspect of Peter Clarke’s report that perhaps highlights the problem in asking a policeman to investigate matters of educational practice.  He conducted an investigation that took evidence from a wide range of people concerned about events in Birmingham.  That included a retired teacher whose evidence was then relied on by government appointed lawyers seeking the prohibition from teaching of a succession of Park View Headteachers.  That teacher’s evidence to the regulatory panel was that raising attainment amongst pupils at Park View was impossible as, given where they came from, they were not capable of achieving good results.  We called evidence from Sir Tim Brighouse, former Chief Education Officer of Birmingham.  He told the panel that such racist views had not been uncommon and had persisted over time.  Once it was the Irish who were at fault for leaving school with no qualifications, then it was the Pakistanis, then the Somalis.  No doubt in turn the children of Syrians will be blamed for our failure to educate them.  The trust and reliance placed upon such a witness by first the Clarke enquiry, and subsequently those responsible for presenting the case for the prohibition of the accused teachers, illustrates the real damage done by not placing an educationalist at the heart of the enquiry.  

Another worrying part of Peter Clarke’s report is the citing of anti-Israeli sentiment and less than wholehearted acceptance that American foreign policy is a force for good in the world as evidence of an outlook ill-suited to integration in British society.  It is troubling to realise that concern about Israeli actions in Gaza appears to cause suspicion in the mind of someone once responsible for counter-terrorism work.

Following the publications of the Clarke report the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, a man who surely knew the inner workings of his own department and whose intellect we are constantly reminded is vast (certainly up to the task of mastering a brief), stood up and led a debate in the House of Commons.  He did so in terms that repeatedly stated that the findings related to secular schools:

“At one secular secondary school, staff told officials that the call to prayer was broadcast across the playground on loud speakers…..

At another secular secondary school, inspectors described “a state of crisis”…

At a third secular secondary school, Ofsted found that students were….

At a secular primary, Ofsted found that….

Following this opening salvo MP after MP stood up to condemn this pernicious invasion of Islamic practice into secular space (whilst quietly making special pleadings that these behaviours were admirable if sanctioned under the umbrella of state schools affiliated to the Church of England or Catholic or Jewish faiths).

The truth, presumably known to Mr Gove, is that there is no such thing as a state secular school in England.  This position was set out succinctly in the evidence of Dr Marius Felderhof, a member of the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (“SACRE”), the body responsible for oversight of aspects of religious education and collective worship in state schools.  At the regulatory enquiry into alleged wrongdoing by the senior leaders of Park View, he reminded the panel that every state school, including non-faith schools, must place at the heart of its educational enterprise an acknowledgment of the divine.  If they fail to do that, then, in the eyes of the Dr Felderhof at least, schools are training centres rather than places of education.  

Of course, Mr Gove and those who briefed him may not be as eloquent as Dr Felderhof but they do know that it has been a requirement in law since the 1944 Education Act and in practice from time immemorial that every child in every school participate every day in an act of collective worship.  

Current guidance on what that means (unchanged since 1994) begins with a preamble telling us that:

The Government is concerned that insufficient attention has been paid explicitly to the spiritual, moral and cultural aspects of pupils’ development, and would encourage schools to address how the curriculum and other activities might best contribute to this crucial dimension of education.

On collective worship we are told:

Collective worship in schools should aim to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs; to encourage participation and response, whether through active involvement in the presentation of worship or through listening to and joining in the worship offered; and to develop community spirit, promote a common ethos and shared values, and reinforce positive attitudes.

We are reminded that:

All registered pupils attending a maintained school should take part in daily collective worship…

The guidance explains that:

‘Worship’ is not defined in the legislation and in the absence of any such definition it should be taken to have its natural and ordinary meaning. That is, it must in some sense reflect something special or separate from ordinary school activities and it should be concerned with reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power.

And we are told what is expected of pupils:

‘Taking part’ in collective worship implies more than simply passive attendance. It follows that an act of collective worship should be capable of eliciting a response from pupils…

This was all presumably known by Mr Gove and understood by Ofsted. Yet the parliamentary debate was led on the basis that what had happened in Birmingham was unacceptable in “secular” schools.  It may be that this arose from incompetence or misunderstanding but I suspect that Matthew Parris got it right back in 2014 when he suggested that the idea of an Islamic plot was too attractive an idea for Mr Gove to pass up and, as Mr Parris says of Mr Gove:

something in his brain flips when Islamic extremism is mentioned. “

Perhaps readers of Mr Gove’s book on the dangers of Islamism, Celsius 7/7 (reviewed as a “confused epic of simplistic incomprehension”),  would agree.

In my view, the damaging misrepresentation that the schools had failed in some way to be secular, cast a pall over the entire regulatory process.  It certainly poisoned and continues to poison the public debate about what happened in Birmingham.  As we have seen, it featured in the public debate from the outset and was reinforced by the Secretary of State for Education.  That perception has never been corrected.

What has the Trojan Horse affair achieved? Have great swathes of British Muslim children been saved from a path that leads inexorably towards terrorism?  Well no.  Because they weren’t on that path in the first place.   

It is easy to say that we must not pander to extremism and it must be challenged at all costs.  Saying it has political benefits but saying it also has societal costs.

Those who say it choose not to understand or are not interested in the fact that the Park View culture was one of challenge.  Pupils were encouraged into school with the reassurance that their faith and their culture would be respected.  Once there and engaged in education they were challenged.  Park View pupils stood on stage and performed with Pink Floyd, they visited and stayed at Russell Group universities and were mentored subsequently by PhD students, they sailed yachts on the Norfolk Broads.  Best of all, Park View pupils were given the gift of educational attainment and with it the ability to escape the narrow confines of Alum Rock.  In many cases they went on to become engaged and engaging members of our broader society.  See, for an example, this young woman expressing herself eloquently through poetry or look to the array of doctors, lawyers, teachers and business people amongst its alumni.

Those who spout the easy words also do not appreciate the cost of the robust challenge now being offered.  A successful approach to achieving engagement with mainstream education by the more socially conservative members of our society has been trashed.   The successor school, Rockwood, has a different approach to integration – an approach that seeks to impose a certain type of British value on its student body – not least through introducing a cadet force (I do enjoy the fact that military training is now offered, at least I didn’t have to justify anything that extreme when defending Park View).

Home schooling is on the rise.  Those parents who were anxious that their child’s religion and culture should be afforded proper space and respect at school may have withdrawn their children from state education altogether.  Park View had developed a system that reached out to a conservative Muslim population and drew them into participation in our wider society.  A generation of Muslim children were given a path to high academic attainment and the opportunity that brings them to participate in and contribute to our inclusive society.  Those from the most conservative backgrounds are now at risk of being driven back to home schooling and the madrassa.  

This is the true cost of the populist simplistic message put out by politicians to assuage fear of the other – we are driven further apart at a time when what we need most is to forge friendships and understanding across our multicultural society.

Andrew Faux

This article appeared in the Guardian

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