Faith in Faith Schools Takes a Knock

25 Aug

The promotion of faiths in our schools has come in for scrutiny, not just on these shores but also in other countries.  England and Wales, uniquely, are the only countries in the western world that require schools to teach religious education.   The objective is to learn about faiths rather than convince pupils that any one faith will provide them with salvation.   In faith schools, however, religions are taken much more seriously.  Every faith school focuses on its chosen faith with a view to making its pupils committed to it.

However, in recent times, faith schools have come under the microscope, especially after the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ saga where the governors at a number of faith and non-faith schools and academies have been allegedly promoting a dogmatic Islamic ethos. 

I           The Birmingham Saga

Some of the conclusions set out in the report of Peter Clarke, former head of counter-intelligence, who was commissioned to carry out a review of 25 schools over allegations of a hard-line Islamist takeover plot, are particularly scary.  Among other things, he mentions the following.

“There has been co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action, carried out by a number of associated individuals, to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham. This has been achieved in a number of schools through gaining influence on the governing bodies, installing sympathetic headteachers or senior members of staff, appointing like-minded people to key positions, and seeking to remove headteachers who they do not feel to be sufficiently compliant with their agenda. Their motivation may well be linked to a deeply held religious conviction, but the effect has been to limit the life-chances of the young people in their care and to render them more vulnerable to pernicious influences in the future.

“Birmingham City Council was aware of the practices and behaviours that were subsequently outlined in the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter long before the letter surfaced. Officers conceded that it did not consider carefully enough nor soon enough the question of whether there was a pattern in what was happening across a number of schools. Instead, the Council persisted in approaching incidents on a case-by-case basis. Further, the officers looking at the issue from a community cohesion and education management perspective respectively did not appear to be sufficiently joined up.

“The Council has not supported headteachers faced with aggressive and inappropriate governor behaviour. This has led to the perception that the Council has relied too readily on the solution of a compromise agreement and that it has failed in its duty of care towards its employees. The Council not being proactive enough in confronting the type of governor practice described in preceding chapters has led to a perception that it has ‘appeased’ governors.”

II          Should we abolish Faith Schools?

Clarke’s enquiry, established by the former secretary of state, Michael Gove, should cause the country as a whole and the government in particular, to question whether we should continue having faith schools.   To many this may sound outrageous.  However, in the United States, religion does not feature in the construction and running of schools.   In France, the government goes further and bans the people from donning attire that obscures the form and features of humans on grounds of faith.

Faith schools in England and Wales were established in the dim past.  In the 19th century the Church provided elementary education in areas of extreme poverty as part of its campaign to provide alms for the poor. The church operated as a tremendous force for good, easing the burden of the destitute and dying, very much as Mother Theresa did during her lifetime in the slums of Calcutta.

As part of the deal that R.A. Butler, former President of the Board of Education, did with the churches to bring them into the state system, he steered the Education Act 1944 through parliament not only to raise the school-leaving age from 14 to 15 but also establish maintained Anglican and Catholic schools.  In due course, with the influx of refugees from the Diaspora, Jewish schools were given voluntary aided status too.  This was extended to other faith groups such as the Muslims, Methodists, Moravian, Presbyterian, Quaker, Seventh Day Adventists, Hindus, Sikhs, United Reform Church and Greek Orthodox in the latter half of the 20th century.

Today, 15% (circa) of pupils in England attend faith schools, which are the only state-funded institutions exempt from the Equality Act 2010 in that they can select pupils on the basis of their parents’ religious beliefs and practices.  Parents have to demonstrate with objective evidence that they espouse the faith which determines the ethos of the school of their choice through attendance at church, synagogue, mosque and temple and observance.      Ninety per cent of the schools’ capital costs are underwritten by the government.

The Fair Admissions Campaign (see here) published research in December 2013 into how selection on the basis of faith criteria unfairly discriminates against the most vulnerable children entitled to free school meals.   In comprehensive secondary schools with no religious character, 11% admit more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected to in their areas, whereas Anglican secondary schools admit 10% and Roman Catholic 24%, Muslim 25% and Jewish secondary schools 61% fewer.

Today, not only voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools admit pupils of a particular faith. The facility is extended to academies and free schools with the latter permitted to admit up to 50% of pupils on the basis of the faiths they and their parents espouse.   There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some free schools are manipulating their criteria to take in excess of the 50% of pupils of the faiths they promote.

The arguments in favour of faiths schools are well-known. The main compelling case for having such schools is to give children a sense of their own identities, one of the key cravings of humankind.  Children are taught to understand and appreciate their roots and exhorted to accept themselves for what they are.   “If you are not you, you are nobody!”

The other argument advanced is that faith schools have higher standards of education and produce much better results than the “bog standard” comprehensives – in the words of Alistair Campbell (the press officer of the former prime minister, Tony Blair).  But the research has shown us that this is not so.  In Lessons Learned, Fenton Whelan has distilled the most important factor of a good school, i.e. the quality of teaching.  Add to that tough leadership and accountability.  Faith, as a criterion, is absent from Mr Whelan’s list of factors required of a good/excellent school.

Faith schools attain better results than the rest because of the quality of their intakes. Accordingly, well-heeled parents have sudden and amazing epiphanies either when their children turn 4 or 11 – i.e. at transition to primary and secondary schools – and begin going to church and synagogue.   Their children are then admitted to these faith schools. As these savvy parents take a deep interest in their children’s education, the latter succeed – raising standards at the schools they attend.   Comprehensive schools have more disadvantageous intakes because many children have lower starting points and consequently, good teachers have to struggle harder to attain similar standards and break a vicious circle of poor results.

The goings-on in Birmingham have forced us to reconsider whether we can continue with the current structure.

III        Opening of Birmingham’s Pandora’s Box

Covert, illegal practices – such as indoctrination – can flourish for lengthy periods of time and whistle-blowers find it daunting to open a Pandora’s Box.  So what exactly has been going on at these Birmingham schools? A former member of staff at Park View Academy in Birmingham on 20 January 2014 sent emails headed “Concern” to The Sunday Times, the local MP, and the British Humanist Association, with a desperate plea: “I hope you can help!”

She described how children were being pressured into going to Islamic prayers at Park View.  Christian assemblies were banned, female staff bullied, words like sex education were crossed out and Muslim parents summoned when their daughters and sons started relationships.  She wrote that pupils were being schooled into thinking it was acceptable to beat up people if they were gay and some were refusing to be taught by gay teachers.

“Until the school converted to an academy I would say I was very happy there,” she revealed.  “However, since it converted, the school has changed and is now being run as an Islamic school…..

“There are many issues that give me great concern, such as the recruitment of more male Muslims with these extreme views which are being forced on the children and staff….When people like myself challenge discrimination, we are bullied and have false allegations made against us. Staff are scared of speaking. The children are not being prepared for life in the bigger world; there is no integration; they are not being encouraged to be open-minded, forward thinkers.  The children deserve so much better.”

The British Humanist Association forwarded the email to the Counter-Terrorism and Due Diligence Association at the Department for Education (DfE), in which some staff members worked in MI5.  This sparked a panicky investigation of Park View by officials.  The following week, The Sunday Times journalists, received an anonymous letter outlining an alleged bizarre plot by Muslim fundamentalists to destabilise and take over state schools in England, which was later dubbed ‘Operation Trojan Horse’.

The apparent aim was to remove unwanted headteachers in Muslim populated areas through the recruitment of governors who would be willing and able to urge parents to complain that teachers were “corrupting children with sex education, teaching about homosexuality, making children say Christian prayers and mixed swimming and sports”.

Teachers bullied out of their jobs would be replaced by staff members sympathetic to the Islamic agenda.  Schools converted to academies would have more freedom and powers to “do their own thing”.  The so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ plot claimed responsibility for ousting several headteachers from named schools in the city.  In fact, Mr Balwant Bains, who is of Sikh origin and the former Headteacher of Saltley Secondary School, had already been ‘harassed, bullied and intimidated’ out of his post by three men, the then chair of governors, his immediate successor and a former teacher of the school who joined the governing body in June 2013 and subsequently chaired it from December 2013, until its dissolution in June 2014 [when it was replaced by an Interim Executive Board (IEB)].

The Sunday Times researched further what appeared to be an outlandish tale and published the story on 2 March 2014 following it up with regular reports and new anonymous letters.

The whistle-blower’s concerns were heeded and spawned four separate, high-level enquiries, culminating in Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (HMCI), confirming that “a culture of fear and intimidation has taken a grip” in Birmingham schools which had resulted in at least six headteachers being marginalised and/or forced out of their jobs.  Private investigators had been hired to check staff emails.  At one school, a teacher was so apprehensive that a meeting with the inspectors was arranged in a supermarket car park.

Park View Academy and its two satellite schools – Nansen Primary and Golden Hillock – and Oldknow Primary and Saltley Secondary Schools were place in special measures.  Of the 25 schools that Gove instructed Ofsted to inspect, three were deemed to be outstanding, six good, five required improvement and 11 were inadequate.

According to The Sunday Times, five headteachers who were the victims of bullying by hard-line Muslim governors, warned of a second layer of extremists planning to take over Birmingham schools.   Saeedo Bano, one of them who resigned as head of Nansen Primary School, said: “There are still many things that need to be addressed.” Kevin McCabe, who quit as head of Adderley Primary School in 2007 and is now head of a successful school in Birmingham, added: “I believe that there are a number of people who have not been named and that there now needs to be further investigations to dig deeper into the situation in Birmingham.”

Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Bridget Jones, a Labour councillor who is in charge of children’s services in Birmingham, said that she had seen no direct evidence of extremism.  Notwithstanding, she revealed that West Midlands police had refused to investigate the anonymous, “Trojan Horse” letter alleging a plot by Salafi Muslims to take over schools.

Ms Jones said that the letter was sent in a brown envelope to the Council leader in November 2013 and was passed to her. On advice from the Council’s legal officer she alerted the police, but “the police were very clear they did not believe there was any basis for their further involvement”.  The Council conducted its own audit, which concluded “there was nothing for us to be concerned about”, she said.

However, following the recent brouhaha, the Council commissioned Ian Kershaw to carry out an investigation of what exactly happened.  He discovered that some individuals, mainly of Pakistani heritage, had used their influence in the community “to coerce others to influence local schools” by rallying support in mosques and “trolling” on social media sites anyone who raised concerns.  In 10 of the 16 schools he investigated there was some evidence of the accusations set out in the “Trojan Horse” letter, which described a five-step plan to ensure that state schools were run on Islamic principles.  The steps included turning parents against the headteacher by alleging that she/he was corrupting the school with sex-education and teaching about homosexuals.  One governor asked for the word, “sex” to be removed from Sex and Relationship Guidance.

Tennis and netball were cancelled at one school because men did not want “girls to be seen with their bits jumping up and down” and black curtains were fitted in a room for an after-school fitness club.    Children at another school were taught that women would be “punished by the angels” if they said “no” to their husbands. The “call to prayer” was introduced at some schools.  “There are schools where headteachers continue to be placed under unreasonable pressure to comply with demands in ways that amount to bullying and harassment,” Mr Kershaw claimed.

His worst criticism was directed at the Council when he stated that its commitment to community cohesion had “at times, and disastrously, overridden the even more important commitment to do what is right”.  This approach exacerbated a culture of not wanting to address difficult issues and problems with school governance, “where there is a risk that Birmingham City Council may be accused of being racist or Islamophobic”, he wrote.

IV        Clarke’s Recommendations

Meanwhile, Clarke’s 15 recommendations to both, the DfE and Birmingham Council were particularly sharp.

(a)        Department for Education

The DfE was asked to

(i)            review the process by which schools supported individuals to gain qualified teacher status (QTS) to ensure that there was no systemic vulnerabilities to abuse;

(ii)           ensure that the governing body of every school extended the responsibilities of the teacher designated Child Protection Officer to include the Prevent Strategy (see here) within his/her role and cascaded to every staff member;

(iii)          consider taking action against teachers who breach teaching standards;

(iv)         review the process by which schools are

  1. able to convert to academy status and
  2. become Multi-Academy Trusts,

to ensure that appropriate checks are conducted on the group and key individuals and that there is an accurate assessment of the trust’s capability and capacity;

(v)          consider the benefits of requiring academies to notify changes in the governing body (membership) to the Department, along with stronger powers for the secretary of state to bar an individual from taking part in the management (and governance) of any type of school (including maintained schools and academies).

(vi)         review guidance on governor appointments to make clear the expectations of the role, including the difference between setting the strategic direction and running the school, the skills and expertise required, and what appropriate training to improve these skills should look like;

(vii)        consider whether there is a case for preventing certain individuals from being involved in the management of schools; and

(viii)       continue to review and analyse the evidence gathered during the investigation, take further steps to understand issues of concern (including potential financial malpractice) and consider appropriate, further actions. It should also consider whether other areas of the country may be similarly vulnerable, and respond promptly and effectively if concerns are raised, ensuring that there is sufficient resource and capacity to do so.

(b)       Birmingham City Council

Birmingham City Council was advised as follows.

(i)            Review systems, processes and policies regarding the support it provides to maintained schools to ensure that it is more strategic and joined-up across the range of functions (including HR, governor support and school improvement).

In particular, it should ensure that

  1. concerns are considered not just on a case by case basis, but reviewed to ensure that any emerging trend is identified and addressed;
  2. intervention is considered in all cases;
  3. the appropriate balance is struck in all cases where there is an actual or perceived tension between community cohesion concerns and educational or safeguarding issues, and that decision-making is not overly influenced by a vocal minority;
  4. and there is effective information sharing – including on criminal issues and safeguarding concerns – between all parts of Birmingham City Council and with other agencies such as the police, the Education Funding Agency and the Department for Education.

(ii)           Review all compromise agreements signed with headteachers in the last five years to consider whether they were appropriate and whether Birmingham City Council should have done more to exercise its duty of care.

(iii)          Take immediate steps to improve the running of its governor support services, so that it (the Council) makes effective appointments following a suitable vetting process, and provides effective support to governing bodies where issues arise. In particular, it should ensure that training is suitable and delivered by appropriate individuals, so that new governors in particular understand the role of the governing body in setting the strategic direction of the school and holding the head to account in appropriate ways and it is able to intervene effectively where the governing body is failing to conduct itself in the expected manner, including where it is making unrealistic demands on the headteacher or seeking to make fundamental changes to the character of the school.

(c)        Other Recommendations

(i)            The Secretary of State was also invited to legislate so that no person can become a governor of more than two schools.   All local authorities and the multi-academy trusts were asked to review their current governor arrangements, and where they identify an individual holding multiple positions consider the appropriate steps to ensure that a wider range of people were able to hold governor positions and that no single individual had undue influence over a number of schools.

(ii)           Clarke asked Birmingham City Council, the DfE, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and Ofsted to

  1. review their respective existing channels for raising issues of concern and ensuring that they were robust, responsive and provided proper protection for those coming forward with sensitive concerns and
  2. judge properly whether there are indications of extremism, and refer the cases to the relevant authority to consider.

In particular, Birmingham City Council was to consider establishing an independent process for teachers and governors to raise concerns. The Department for Education was to ensure that the receipt of sensitive complaints forms part of the new Regional Schools Commissioners’ responsibilities, and that the Regional Schools Commissioners are able to refer complaints and concerns to the relevant agency for further investigation.

(iii)          Ofsted was requested to consider whether the existing inspection framework and associated guidance was capable of detecting indicators of extremism and ensuring that the character of a school was not changed substantively without following the proper process. This included ensuring that the appropriate boundaries for a non-faith school were not breached. It was also to establish that headteachers’ responsibility for ensuring that bi-annual Child Protection training was undertaken.

(iv)         All schools were to include details on their website of their governing body. This was to include

  1. the full names of the individuals, along with any committees of which they are members; the method of appointment (e.g. whether a local authority appointment or an elected parent governor);
  2. and the expected period of the appointment, in order to promote transparency over the running of schools.

V         Reflections

We have had nothing less than a saga; so is it time the nation seriously considers consider whether faith schools continue as such?

First, let us be clear that many of the schools/academies at the centre of the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations were secular albeit Ofsted discovered that some had been turned into Muslim schools by stealth.

At a prayer breakfast in late June 2014 attended by prime minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, and church charity representatives, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the there had been no recent problems in church schools because they were tolerant, receptive, generous and open-handed. The country educated one million children in Anglican schools. Another half-a-million were educated in Catholic ones.  Welby reminded the gathering that the church spearheaded the advance of education in this country and had been involved in it for centuries.

However, because something has been done for centuries should that continue when times have radically changed – and (beginning with the Middle East) some religious groups have become so entrenched in their beliefs that people of non faith groups are deemed to be anathema and evil?

A week prior to the Archbishop’s prayer breakfast, Sir Michael Wilshaw of Ofsted, presenting the findings of 21 inspections at schools in Birmingham, said that pupils at some schools were taught a narrow range of subjects to reflect a faith-based ideology and were left vulnerable to segregation and dislocation from wider society.

To what extent is this practice mirrored in other faith schools?   A Channel 4 Dispatches programme went behind the scenes at a Muslim primary school where children weren’t allowed to clap.  It also captured other worrying examples of brainwashing that goes on at Jewish and Christian schools.

Faith schools advertently and inadvertently segregate.   Phillip Collins, the former prime minister Tony Blair’s speech writer, in an article in The Times (14 March 2014), described the “square mile of piety” – an area not in Mecca or the Vatican but rather in a pocket of Hackney in North London, i.e. Stamford Hill.   “The men of the area walk the streets in the clothes their predecessors would have worn in the shetetl back in …. Poland,” he states.  They are totally segregated from people 100 yards away and constitute the largest community of Hasidic Jews in Europe.  They segregate themselves from the other communities.  They never exchange greetings with members of other communities (except when buying and selling) and keep themselves to themselves.

Their children are educated at the Yasodey Hatorah Schools (for boys and girls), which have written out Shakespeare from the curriculum because he was deemed to be anti-Semitic, thanks to The Merchant of Venice.   The schools also redacted a question on evolution in the GCSE science examination.

Academy chains committed to particular faiths bring in creationist teaching.  Some like the Catholic London Oratory, where Blair sent his children, give extra weight in their admissions criteria (which was recently found to be illegal by the Schools Adjudicator) to parents singing in the church choir, serving at the altar or arranging flowers before Mass.

Alice Thompson, a Times journalist, describes the deep disquiet she experienced when, as a child living a few doors away from a Jewish school, she was prevented from engaging with the young people there.  She barely saw them albeit when she did, they sneakily asked her to buy some pork scratching from the local garage.   Their facilities were amazing but she could not play with them because, as she was told by her mother, she wasn’t Jewish.  She, herself, attended a school a bus-ride away that was formerly run by Anglican nuns and now admitted children of all faiths and none.

Fast-forward a score of years.  In her reflections she said she accepted that faith schools achieved great results and had good discipline. Most faiths create environments in which children are encouraged to work, study and attain high standards.  Should the questionable practices at some be justification for scrapping the lot of these institutions?

Schools are a vital part of public life and need to follow principles set out for the nation.

The faith criterion is incompatible with the Equality Act 2010, to which all non-faith schools are subject.  If faith schools prevail, why not establish faith hospitals.  Let’s go further.  What about having towns where only people belonging to set faiths live?  There would give rise to excoriating shrieks of horror.

We have censured the French for banning the wearing of the hijab and preventing discussion of religion in schools.   However, America, a fervently religious country (especially in the Deep South where there are fanatical faith groups), established a system half-a-century ago preventing schools from proselytising and promoting any one religion while at the same time celebrating and accepting children of all faiths.

It’s time we seriously consider the proposition that families have a responsibility to inculcate in their children a love and devotion to their particular faiths through Sunday classes and Sabbath suppers, leaving schools to focus on their overarching responsibility, i.e. educating their children.   Two centuries ago, Thomas Paine, the philosopher, said: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren and to do good is my religion.”

“Amen”, as people of some faiths would say…….

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