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OFSTED reports 'grave concerns' in Birmingham schools

13 June 2014

Richard Haughton

School's out: pupils walk in a corridor at Park View Academy, Birmingham

School's out: pupils walk in a corridor at Park View Academy, Birmingham

THE mass inspection of Birmingham schools by OFSTED, in response to allegations of infiltration by Muslim governors and staff with a conservative religious agenda ( News, 6 June), gave grounds for "grave concern", the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said this week.

In an advice note to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, after the publication of OFSTED reports on 21 of the city schools, Sir Michael said that there was evidence that a climate of fear and intimidation, accompanied by a sudden deep decline in standards, had taken hold in schools previously recognised as outstanding.

"Some head teachers with a proud record of raising standards had been marginalised or forced out of their jobs," Sir Michael said. One witness had been so anxious about talking to inspectors that the interview had taken place in a supermarket car park.

Some head teachers believed that there had been an organised campaign to target certain schools in order to alter their character and ethos, and had identified governors who were "highly influential" across several of the schools inspected, the report says.

While Sir Michael's advice note does not give a precise number, a spokesman for the National Association of Head Teachers said that it had supported 30 members with concerns, and had carried out detailed work in a dozen schools.

Governors in some of the 21 inspected schools, Sir Michael said, had sought to change policies and the curriculum in line with their own personal beliefs. Moreover, inspectors had found specific examples of the appointment of family members to unadvertised senior posts, "in spite of poor references and against the wishes of the head teacher".

In some schools, there had been questionable use of public funds. Some staff complained that they had been treated unfairly because of their gender or religious belief.

Of the 21 schools inspected, 11 have been told that they require improvement, and five have been placed in special measures. These include Park View Academy, at the centre of the allegations, and its associated academies, Golden Hillock, and Nansen Primary; Oldknow Academy; and Saltley School and Specialist Science College. A sixth school, Alston Primary, is already in special measures.

Saltley is a local-authority school, and the council has already announced its intention to replace its governors with an interim executive board. The Trusts responsible for the four academies, which are centrally funded, however, have been told that it is likely their agreement with the Secretary of State will be terminated.

In a letter to Tahir Alam, who chairs the Park View Trust - which oversees Park View, Golden Hillock, and Nansen academies - Lord Nash, the Government's academies spokesman, said that the Trust had failed in its obligation to provide spiritual, moral, and cultural education that encouraged tolerance between people of different faiths, and had not encouraged pupils to respect the fundamentals of British democracy.

The letter also criticises Park View for failing adequately to vet visitors to the school, and for inviting a speaker with known extremist sympathies.

Mr Alam, a former chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools, has consistently denied all the "Trojan horse" allegations. The Trust has that said it will resist the threatened withdrawal of funding, and is expected to mount a legal challenge to OFSTED's conclusions.

David Hughes, the vice-chairman of the Trust and an Anglican, has also disputed OFSTED's findings. "The speed and ferocity with which Park View School in particular has been condemned is truly shocking. OFSTED inspectors came to our schools looking for extremism, looking for segregation, looking for proof that our children have religion forced on them as part of an Islamic plot.

"The OFSTED reports find absolutely no evidence of this, because this is categorically not what is happening."

Defenders of the schools involved in the investigations have consistently drawn attention to their academic results, which are significantly higher than the average achievement in comparable areas of economic deprivation.

Sir Michael's report acknowledges this, but says that examination success is outweighed by other factors. All five schools, formerly rated outstanding or good, have been downgraded, because inspectors were dissatisfied with their safeguarding arrangements. In the current Birmingham climate, "safeguarding" is a code word for the Government's "Prevent" agenda to stop the radicalisation of young people, in which schools are expected to play a significant part.

Sir Michael's advice note makes clear his view that Birmingham city council failed to support schools "in their efforts to keep pupils safe from the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism. . . It has not dealt adequately with complaints from head teachers about the conduct of governors." Nor, he says, were they sufficiently careful about the suitability of those recommended for governor positions.

Among his recommendations is mandatory training for all governors, who should be clear that they are bound by prescribed procedures if they wish to change the status or character of a school. He also wants school and academies to receive clearer guidance on what constitutes a balanced curriculum, and more monitoring of funding agreements for academies and free schools.

"In culturally homogeneous communities, schools are often the only places where children learn about other faiths, cultures, and lifestyles, and all must promote the wider values of British society," Sir Michael said.

"If this does not happen, the principles that are fundamental to the well-being of our society will not be transmitted to the next generation."

AS OFSTED reported this week on inspections of 21 schools in Birmingham, inspectors visited Laisterdyke Business and Enterprise College, Bradford. The city council replaced Laisterdyke's governing body with an interim executive board in April.

The council said that it had taken the action because "governors had increasingly undermined the capacity of senior leaders, and slowed down decision making".

Concerns that Laisterdyke, a comprehensive school with a mainly Muslim student body, and Carlton Bolling, a similar school, had been targeted by governors with a conservative religious agenda have grown over several months. Neil Weller, the chief executive of Bradford Partnership, a consortium of 31 schools aiming to raise educational standards in the city, said in an ITN interview on Tuesday that concerns were focused on a small minority of governors.

 

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