John Holmwood, University of Nottingham
In this article, I want to set a wider context to the media and political furore concerning the supposed plot – ‘operation Trojan horse’ – to infiltrate schools in Birmingham in pursuit of an Islamist agenda. This has followed a period of severe disruption to education and other public services since the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010 under the guise of managing the deficit following the financial crisis of 2008. It has included the extension of competition in health care and higher education by for-profit providers. For his part, the Secretary of State for Education has accelerated the move of schools out of local education authority (LEA) responsibility. For example, by January 2014 just over 56% of secondary and 11% of primary schools in England had academy trust or free school status under the direct authority of the Secretary of State himself. The services previously provided by LEAs are now provided by trusts, consultancies and for-profit companies.
This is part of a wider neo-liberal approach to public services that seeks to transfer them to the market and to make them available to for-profit private companies. Much of this is taking place in the form of a Trade in Services Agreement among Governments, secretly negotiated outside World Trade Organisation rules. The Taiwanese protests against such an agreement between Taiwan and China was reported in an earlier issue of Discover Society. It is not far-fetched to place operation Trojan horse in the same context and, in doing so, to come to an understanding of the damage done to local democracy and accountability by the pursuit of neo-liberal public policies.
The issue of democracy has also come into play in terms of political and media claims about the promotion of extremism within Muslim communities in Britain and the need for a vigorous response, promoting ‘British values’, including the need to be ‘intolerant’ of any supposed intolerance within those communities. Such constructions, however, reveal a different problem, namely that of defining a political community and the values that should inform it from a neo-liberal perspective.
Neo-liberalism involves the idea of individuals as self-determining and autonomous, separated from interdependent relationships of association and community. The market is then seen as an expression of the liberties of such individuals within which they are free to pursue their own self-defined ends. But what of the mutual commitments that are necessary to define any political community in whose name governance is exercised? For these not to conflict with the ‘rights’ of individuals, they must be represented in minimal terms, essentially as a commitment to the ‘rule of law’
As others have pointed out – most notably, Stuart Hall in his account of ‘authoritarian populism’ – the problem is that ‘marketization’ requires active, centralised government direction. At the same time, it hollows out civil society by removing those services from local participation and determination (however flawed some of those processes might have been), creating resistance, but also vulnerability to populist ‘mobilisations’ to fill the vacuum – as evidenced most recently by the support for UKIP.
These features are evident in the defence of ‘British values’ and the requirement that they would now be taught in all schools set out by David Cameron in an article for the Mail on Sunday in response to ‘operation Trojan horse’. “Our freedom”, he wrote, “doesn’t come from thin air. It is rooted in our parliamentary democracy and free press. Our sense of responsibility and the rule of law is attached to our courts and independent judiciary.”
He then went on to enumerate two other reasons to promote British values. The first was an articulation of the neo-liberal politics of austerity: “I strongly believe our values form the foundation of our prosperity… Put another way, promoting our values is a key way to economic success – and that’s why we will stick to our long-term economic plan of cutting the deficit, cutting taxes and backing businesses and families to get on in life.”
The second articulated a division of the political community into ‘us’ and ‘them’: “Our values have a vital role to play in uniting us. They should help to ensure Britain not only brings together people from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, but also ensures that, together, we build a common home. In recent years we have been in danger of sending out a worrying message: that if you don’t want to believe in democracy, that’s fine; that if equality isn’t your bag, don’t worry about it; that if you’re completely intolerant of others, we will still tolerate you.“
But how are such values to be articulated in education and how do they relate to the reality of Birmingham schools? As Marius Felderhof has set out elsewhere in this issue, since 1944 religious education and religious worship in schools has been governed by law under statutes set out for local education authorities under a Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). Since 1988, the requirement of religious education has been part of the national curriculum. However, academy schools and free schools are not required to follow the national curriculum and the SACRE ‘locally agreed’ curriculum for religious education, but can follow their own curriculum. However, they have been required to follow the provisions for collective worship.
Much has been made of the fact that some Birmingham schools hold Islamic services, while not being designated faith schools, but this misrepresents the issue. The statutory requirement is for worship of a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’, reflecting ‘the broad traditions of Christian belief, without being distinctive of any Christian denomination’. In schools where it is felt that collective worship that is ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ is inappropriate for pupils, for religious reasons, the school may apply for a ‘Determination’. A Determination lifts the requirement for collective worship to be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ and allows other forms of collective worship.
These Determinations are under the authority of the SACRE (see, here, for details by Bradford SACRE) for LEA schools, and under the authority of the Secretary of State for academy schools. Birmingham SACRE made 27 such Determinations, but a FoI request has indicated that the Secretary of State has allowed no Determinations. The force of this is most evident where schools have transitioned from LEA status to academy status. Their SACRE determination is ‘time-limited’ and lapses, whence their ‘determination’ allowing Islamic (or other) worship reverts to a requirement for Christian worship, notwithstanding the composition of the school.
The Oldknow Academy Ofsted Report for April 2014 comments, “the Determination awarded to the academy in January 2008, exempting the academy from having a daily, broadly Christian act of worship, expired in January 2013 and was not renewed.” The implication is that the fault of ‘non-renewal’ lies with a school following authoritarian dogma. In truth, the reality is that of an authoritarian and dogmatic Secretary of State requiring a school of predominantly non-Christian background to have a daily broadly Christian act of worship. From his perspective, evidently, ‘British values’ are Christian values, albeit not those of tolerant Christians in Birmingham.
But the situation is actually worse. In 2007, after much debate and discussion among its different ‘pillars’ (Anglicans, representatives of other Christian denominations and other faiths, teachers, and representatives of the local authority), Birmingham SACRE radically reformed its curriculum for religious education applying to all years of primary and secondary education. This was directed at the statutory requirement to attend to the whole child and his or her moral, spiritual and cognitive development. In a context where the neo-liberal agenda has reinforced instrumental, target driven requirements, it is the only part of the curriculum with a true pedagogic intent.
The new curriculum was not designed to teach children about other religions, but approaches them, in terms of a ‘Dewey-like’ idea of ‘dispositions’. There are 24 of them, including ‘being temperate’, ‘being joyful’ ‘being attentive to suffering’, ‘being fair and just’, ‘being accountable and living with integrity’, ‘cultivating inclusion, identity and belonging’. The curriculum doesn’t focus on what different religions believe, but how they exemplify and practice these ‘universalisable’ dispositions.
For Birmingham LEA schools, the curriculum informs collective worship (whatever its Determination). The Secretary of State for Education exempted academy schools from the national curriculum and refused to make a requirement that religious education under SACRE (or any other authority) should continue, refusing even to meet with Birmingham SACRE to hear their concerns. Yet many Birmingham schools that transitioned to academy status continued with their commitment to the new SACRE curriculum, reflecting their previous involvement in its development.
It is in this context that we need to understand how the very schools that achieved (and continue to receive) grades of ‘outstanding’ for teaching and pupil achievement, could previously also have achieved the same grade for safety and wellbeing of children. Thus, in the January 2013 Oldknow Academy Ofsted Report (based upon observations of 38 classes involving 35 teachers) it could be stated: “The academy’s contribution to pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is exceptionally good. The very wide range of different cultures is celebrated, opportunities are provided for prayer at appropriate times, and assemblies reflect the different faiths groups in the academy …The academy is a friendly and racially harmonious place, where discrimination of any kind is not tolerated.”
In their April 2014 Report (based upon observations of 11 lessons) the inspectors write: “The curriculum is inadequate because it does not foster an appreciation of, and respect for, pupils’ own or other cultures. It does not promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions.” The conclusion must be that the inspectors were unaware of the SACRE ‘locally agreed’ religious education curriculum and were, instead, focused on the PREVENT agenda, as suggested by Miah, a worrying sign of the possible politicisation of the inspectorate, as argued by Baxter (both in this issue).
The Prime Minister also argued in the Mail on Sunday that, “Our belief in tolerance was won through struggle and is linked to the various churches and faith groups that have come to call Britain home. These are the institutions that help to enforce our values, keep them in check and make sure they apply to everyone equally.” It is evident that he is unaware that this has been the recent history of Birmingham and the very communities he labels as intolerant.
It is paradoxical that his Secretary of State for Education should be unaware of the role of local, deliberative, inter-faith institutions, such as the SACREs in developing the very values of tolerance he purports to espouse. Indeed, it is not only his Home Secretary, Theresa May, that despairs of the chaotic situation with regard to the system of oversight in schools in her 2011 presentation of the PREVENT strategy that pledged Departments to work together to fix it. Local communities via their SACREs have made similar representations to an obdurate Minister.
We might ask why a community of poor people has been pathologised for seeking to teach its children to live together with tolerance, mindful of difference, attentive to suffering and concerned with fairness and justice? We might also ask why local people are removed from direct engagement with the character of their schools and why it is that their character should be determined by an over-bearing Secretary of State, fuelling a media panic, keen to secure a parental choice that will be denied to all those that don’t choose in line with the Secretary of State’s preferences?
The answer lies in the neo-liberal belief in markets and support for the special interests – consultancies, for-profit providers of services, etc – that are queuing up to take-over public services. A populist ‘othering’ of minorities is the wind that keeps the ship of state on its neo-liberal course, replacing publics with markets.
John Holmwood is professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is currently President of the British Sociological Association.