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Birmingham schools hit back at OFSTED after critical reports

09 June 2014

RICHARD HAUGHTON

A beacon? Pupils outside Park View school 

A beacon? Pupils outside Park View school 

A "CULTURE of fear and intimidation" has taken hold in some schools in Birmingham, the Chief Inspector of Schools said on Monday.

In his advice to the Education Secretary, written after reviewing the inspections of 21 schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that governors had recently exerted "inappropriate influence" on several schools in an attempt to impose a "narrow faith-based ideology". Pupils were being left "vulnerable to segregation and emotional dislocation from wider society". Five of the 21 have been placed in Special Measures by OFSTED.

The inspections were carried out between March and May. Fifteen of the 21, none of which are faith schools, were inspected at the request of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, after allegations of infiltration by Islamic extremists (News, 25 April).

Although the reports were not published by OFSTED until Monday afternoon, Park View Education Trust, which manages three of the schools placed in Special Measures, opted to publish OFSTED's report on the secondary school at the heart of the media's coverage - Park View - in the morning, alongside a statement denouncing it.

OFSTED rated Park View as "outstanding" in 2012, but has now pronounced it to be "inadequate", the lowest grade. The school is criticised for a failure to "raise students' awareness of the risks of extremism" and for providing "few opportunities for students to learn about different types of beliefs and cultures". Inspectors report that "a significant number of staff" had told them that they had "no confidence in either senior leaders of governors" and that governors "involve themselves inappropriately in the running of the academy". Some staff felt "intimidated" and were "fearful of speaking out against changes".

The school's leadership has hit back at the claims, publishing an eight-page statement in which it accuses OFSTED of falling prey to "undue political influence", in addition to statements from both the vice-chair and assistant principal, and a letter to the Prime Minister.

David Hughes, the vice-chair of Park View Educational Trust, said: "The speed and the ferocity with which Park View School, in particular, has been condemned, is truly shocking."

OFSTED inspectors had come "looking for extremism, looking for segregation, looking for proof that our children have religion forced upon them as part of an Islamic plot. The OFSTED reports find absolutely no evidence of this, because this is categorically not what is happening at our schools. Our schools do not tolerate or promote extremism of any kind."

The problem was not extremism, he suggested, but "the knee-jerk actions of some politicians" who had "put Muslim children from these communities at substantial risk of not being accepted as equal, legitimate and values members of British society".

Mr Hughes, who is a practising Anglican, was supported by Lee Donaghy, assistant principal at Park View, who describes himself as "agnostic".

He described Park View as "a beacon of hope against a tide of isolation, poverty, drugs, crime, and yes, potential extremism. . . which achieves what many thought impossible - poor, inner-city, Muslim children achieving as well as any children, anywhere."

Despite the fact that 72 per cent of students at Park View are eligible for the Pupil Premium (eligible for free school meals or in the care of the local authority), 75 per cent achieve five GCSEs graded A*-C, well above the national average. The Trust has vowed to challenge the OFSTED reports through legal channels.

Parallel to the OFSTED report, a review of the Trust was conducted by the Educational Funding Agency (EFA), part of the Department for Education. It notes that Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman was invited to speak at Park View, despite having previously expressed extremist views. There was also "some" gender segregation: in some classes boys sat at the front and girls around the edges. Lessons in personal, social, health and economic education (PHSE), biology, and sex and relationship education had been "restricted to comply with conservative Islamic teaching".

OFSTED has also published reports on the two other schools in the Park View Education Trust: Golden Hillock School and Nansen Primary School. Findings included the discovery that, at the latter, the governing body had removed some subjects, such as music, from the timetable. Golden Hillock was rated as inadequate across all four categories assessed by OFSTED. Some female teachers felt "intimidated" by male members of the school community.

The other two schools placed in Special Measures by OFSTED are Oldknow Academy and Saltley School and Specialist Science College. Saltley, ranked inadequate across the board, was "in a state of crisis". The governors had paid private investigators to interrogate the emails of senior staff. A statement from the governing body said that the report "was not written with due respect for appropriate evidence".

At Oldknow, OFSTED reported that a small group of governors was "endeavouring to promote a particular and narrow faith-based ideology". Staff felt afraid to speak out. The achievement of pupils and quality of teaching was, however, ranked outstanding. The EFA's report on Oldknow suggested that pupils had been encouraged to reply "no" to a teacher's assertion during a Christmastime assembly that "We don't celebrate Christmas, do we?" Staff reported that, during Friday assembly, words such as "white prostitute" had been used.

On Monday, Mr Gove said that Sir Michael would be asked to examine the possibility of introducing unannounced inspections on schools.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was said to be "deeply concerned" by the allegations.                        

The Muslim Council of Britain expressed concern about the OFSTED reports. "No extremism has been found, but the slur of extremism remains," a statement said. "This whole saga has also been politicised, and we call on both the Department for Education and OFSTED to look into why there have been a drip feed of leaks from the investigation, resulting in further feverish speculation and ultimately hostility against Muslims."

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