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Who governs the governors?

06 June 2014

Religious extremism has no place in education, but finding people prepared to provide good governance in schools is becoming increasingly difficult, says Dennis Richards


Under scrutiny: pupils at Park View Academy, in Birmingham. The school is one of eight in the city that OFSTED is investigating concerning allegations of Islamic extremism 

Under scrutiny: pupils at Park View Academy, in Birmingham. The school is one of eight in the city that OFSTED is investigating concerning allegatio...

THE INDEPENDENT asked: "What is it about Michael Gove that makes people hate him so much?" Most of the ire seemed to come from head teachers, but I have felt somewhat detached, having left such a post more than two years ago.

That was, until the Secretary of Education's recent comment, at the launch of the Inspiring Governors Alliance: "The thing about being a governor is that it's not just a touchy-feely, sherry-pouring, cake-slicing exercise in hugging and singing 'Kumbaya'."

Having checked that the date was not the First of April, I discussed it with a governor colleague. We were both outraged. It reminded us of the furore in France, earlier in the year, when President Hollande went on a scooter to a midnight tryst with an actress. The French were appalled - by the scooter.

Sherry, indeed. Neither of us has drunk the stuff for at least 20 years. As for hugging my fellow governors - has he seen them? I last sang "Kumbaya" when I had long hair and thought I was Barnsley's answer to Bob Dylan; and as for "touchy-feely" - not the most felicitous allusion in any context connected with schools, I would have thought.

ALTHOUGH the exact extent of the alleged Muslim infiltration of some Birmingham schools (News, 25 April) is not known, Margaret Holness's recent carefully worded reports suggest that the scale of any perceived problem does not merit the hysteria in some of the popular press.

The story has, however, at least highlighted that there is a problem with governance around the country. (Bizarre, incidentally, that the first four letters of the word bring us back to the Education Secretary again. The man is everywhere. Perhaps we should change our name: govespeople perhaps. Ouch.)

Bath University, and the National Governors' Association have just completed a survey of 7500 school governors. The conclusion is sobering: "There is a shortage of potential recruits in all categories. The more challenging the setting, the harder it is to to recruit governors." That is most certainly the case in Bradford, and I dare say Birmingham is not that different.

The problem has been exacerbated by the focus that OFSTED now places on governance in general; the part played by the governors in holding a school to account; and the extent to which governors understand the bewildering range of data emanating from the DfE.

If you think that attainment and achievement are the same thing, if you cannot cope with "issues thrown up from the unvalidated RAISEonline", and if you have no idea what the SPAG test is - you have failed. Because of you, the school requires improvement. You will need something a lot stronger than sherry.

Only the most committed, or the prevailed on, or, sadly, those with a different agenda of whatever kind are putting themselves into the OFSTED firing-line in tough areas. This is the issue that Mr Gove must address.

I CAN'T talk about other faith schools, but it isn't much of a danger in Church of England schools," the Archbishop of Canterbury said when asked about allegations that fundamentalists were targeting schools in Birmingham.

Admittedly it was not so much Operation Trojan Horse as Operation Wallace and Grommit when Christian fundamentalists ganged up on St Aidan's School, in Harrogate, after governors decided to change the school uniform to trousers for both genders. (It is strange that girls wearing trousers is a must in one religious community, and anathema in another.)

Our bête noire at St Aidan's was "Arnold". Leaving aside the rather dubious interest that "Arnold" appeared to have in the subject of girls and skirts, his regular emails attacked us for our wilful ignorance of scripture. Didn't we know that "the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man . . . for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord"? (Deuteronomy 22.5).

A PLYMOUTH-BRETHREN childhood had prepared me well for the "Arnolds" of this world. I knew the script as well as he did. Stoning drunken youths to death is also required in Deuteronomy - a somewhat extreme remedy for sixth-form high jinks.

And I recall a fiery Welsh evangelist at a conference, berating the women who, in his view, were not covering their hair to the Lord's satisfaction. At the end of his address, with no sense of irony or shame, he informed us that "the sisters will now wait on us through the ministry of the tea urn."

I did notice that the next time he spoke, the sisters left suspiciously early, clearly preferring the tea-urn's company to his. If either he - or "Arnold", for that matter - ever managed to inveigle themselves on to a church-school governing body, then the Archbishop's view might look somewhat complacent.

But, for the moment, Archbishop Welby is right. It is to the Church of England that we must turn. Now the largest sponsor of academies in England, the C of E sees its salvation in its schools. Congregations swell where there is a good church school and the prize of a place. It is a running theme in the TV series Rev, where the hapless Adam Smallbone has precious few other cards to play.

"In praise of mild faith" was how Bryan Appleyard drew attention to the phenomenon in The Sunday Times. "Religion is most attractive when it is weak, because it doesn't handle power better than anybody else." Amen to that.

SCHOOL is church, it is sometimes opined. No, it is not; school is school. There are educational issues in all schools, not just faith schools, where outmoded religious fundamentalism, of whatever stripe, has lost the argument. Equality of opportunity and treatment for girls is a non-negotiable part of the 21st-century English landscape in all schools. As is zero tolerance for all forms of homophobia and racism, and the encouragement of healthy eating.

At St Saviour's C of E Primary School, Birmingham, only five out of the 420 pupils are not Muslim (News, 11 April). The chairman of the board of governors, the Revd Alan Thompson, says: "We don't play theology: we do it. We only celebrate what unites us, and that is a very great deal." How Anglican is that?

The school is outstanding, and is ranked among the best in the country. And there isn't a bottle of sherry in sight.

Dennis Richards is chairman of governors at St Oswald's C of E Primary Academy, Bradford; a governor at David Young Community Academy, Leeds; and a former head teacher of St Aidan's C of E High School, Harrogate.

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