After Trojan Horse, We Are Still At Risk From Segregation And Intolerance | Roshan Doug
Just before Christmas the independent Kerslake report severely criticised Birmingham city council for its dysfunctional politics and, in particular, its handling of the so-called Trojan Horse affair, in which school governors were said to have set out to bring about an Islamic agenda into the curriculum contents and the day-to-day running of some schools. Kerslake is the latest in a series of reports on the scandal. And what has changed?
It’s now three months since Sir Mike Tomlinson was appointed Birmingham’s commissioner for education following the affair. We wait eagerly to see what his approach is going to be. By now he must have realised the delicate nature of the job, for it requires both tact and courage. But before Tomlinson can do anything, he needs to redefine what kind of education is needed in a culturally diverse city like Birmingham. And what he does to this city’s state schools will have an impact on multicultural education across the country.
As a secular educationalist of immigrant parents, I’m a product of Birmingham’s 1960s and 70s multicultural education policy. The government then seemed to have confidence in teachers to create a well balanced curriculum, irrespective of cultural, religious, ethnic or class make-up of the pupils. My schooling took place at a time when multicultural education meant broadening pupils’ awareness of otherness. It was about helping pupils to access mainstream culture and identity. As a result, I grew up looking outside my own experience.
A multicultural education means developing a shared set of values, providing access to jobs, training and social mobility for all and, surely, intervening if there is a risk that a community wants to shield its own children from the realities of multicultural and diverse Britain.
In his report on the Trojan Horse affair, published last summer, Peter Clarke said there was evidence that the governing bodies promoted segregation, including the subordination of girls, and radicalisation. Recently, Balwant Bains, a Sikh and headteacher at one of the schools, Saltley science academy, described how he was hounded out of his job. A group of parents tried to impose their will on the curriculum, he said, by undermining the secular education ethos in favour of an Islamic agenda. In one three-month period, he told the New York Times, he was forced to justify every decision he made to his governing body, including why students were told to walk on the right side in corridors.
Today, there are still those who think we should allow some parents to cocoon their children inside their own communities. But if we do this, we limit the opportunities offered to those children and we disempower those communities. I believe we are still in danger of following this dangerous path out of a blinkered adherence to political correctness and cultural sensitivities.
Despite all the reports we have now seen, there are still those in Birmingham who are loudly asserting their wish to limit their children’s curriculum. The effect of this could be segregation, intolerance, homophobia, and a lack of sex and relationships education.
Some still argue that there has been a lack of “basic understanding of Islam” and that an Islamicised curriculum can tackle underachievement and increase tolerance and respect. But the Clarke report was an investigation into schools that failed to provide a balance or acted injudiciously. Its findings, therefore, concern us all.
Another of Clarke’s findings was that Birmingham city council was reluctant to take up problems with the governing bodies that were reported to it.
As a former chair of governors in an inner-city primary school in Birmingham, I can say from experience that some governors’ knowledge of curriculum strategies (and finance and other considerations that determine the effective running of a school) was disappointing. It is easy to see how governors could be mobilised or manipulated by others to oppose or obstruct school leaders.
Back in 1984, Ray Honeyford, the headteacher at a Bradford school, caused a stir when he said that his pupils from mainly poor Pakistani heritage and tribal communities were being badly served by leftwing policy-makers and parent groups. He ran into trouble because of the way he expressed his views. But the essence of what he said was credible. And two decades ago, Trevor Phillips said that Britain was “sleepwalking into segregation”. Even after all these years, we are still widening the gap in this way.
Of course, pupils’ religion and the cultural values of their families are important. And we need to involve parents in their children’s education. But we have a duty to help pupils to learn about a world outside their own culture. Education should free young people from the shackles of reactionary thinking and cultural parochialism.
What the scandal should have taught us is that we need to consider the quality of our governing bodies; to intervene rapidly when there are problems, especially when relations between senior management and governors are breaking down. We need to redefine the powers and perimeters. But, most of all, by applying an outdated definition of multicultural education – that we should leave cultural sensitivities well alone – we impoverish our pupils’ education.
Roshan Doug is the former poet laureate of Birmingham and is now an education researcher at the University of Birmingham