Although I’ve spent the last 6 weeks working in Australia, I’ve been following the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ story back home in the UK. This is a deeply disturbing case of political interference, whatever the outcome of current machinations (more below). I’ve written before about the need to take politics out of education, and the catastrophic effects of structures which emphasise accountability over trust. Others with much bigger audiences than I (Pasi Sahlberg, Diane Ravitch) argue along similar lines. The GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) that Pasi describes is wreaking havoc on the patient (public schooling) but, if anything, politicians are becoming even more strident in their language and their desire to ‘get tough’ on schools.
Here in Australia, the Federal Secretary of State for Education, Christopher Pyne, declared only last week that the coalition government had “a particular responsibility for non-government schooling that we don’t have for government schooling.” Isn’t the clue supposed to be in the title? If the government doesn’t have an ’emotional commitment’ to its own schools, what message does that send to teachers and parents?
In the UK, the Trojan Horse affair has exposed what happens when power over schools becomes too centralised. For those not familiar with the saga, a letter was allegedly circulated by Islamic fundamentalists planning to make Birmingham schools with high proportions of muslim students more conservative. The concern of education boss, Michael Gove, was that schools in Birmingham were being ‘infiltrated’ by extremists, and students were being ‘radicalised’. The letter is now rumoured to have been a hoax, but that hasn’t stopped an unprecedented response from the Department for Education.
The schools inspections agency, OFSTED, was sent in to re-inspect fifteen schools. Although the report has yet to be published there’s been enough leaking to suggest that schools which were deemed ‘outstanding’ less than a year ago, are now ‘inadequate’. Senior education figures, like Tim Brighouse, have argued that such a rapid decline is impossible and clearly shows that OFSTED can no longer pretend to be objective and independent of government. The teaching profession is outraged.
Whatever the outcome, both OFSTED and the Department look set to come out of it badly. If OFSTED’s most recent inspections are damning, why weren’t these issues picked up when the schools were previously inspected? And some of the schools are already academies and therefore directly under government control. So why weren’t the warning signs picked up? (Perhaps because it’s impossible to centrally control thousands of academies?) On the other hand, however, if the claims of radicalisation are seen to have been exaggerated, then both government and OFSTED will have been deemed to have over-reacted and interfered unnecessarily.
Of course, the losers, as ever, are the students and staff at the schools in question. I can only imagine what morale must be like in those schools
Coincidentally, I became aware, this week, of a new film, ‘Rise Above The Mark’, which argues that in the US, excessive interference from legislators is leading to the ‘corporatisation’ of American public schools. The film highlights one school district in Indiana which is bucking the trend, by placing decision-making in the hands of its community.
Now is the time for educators, in GERM-infected countries, to step up to the mark. Public schooling is under joint attack: from governments seeking to wield more power, and from corporations with a financial interest in their demise. If they simply allow governments to take education out of the hands of the profession, they will surely do so. And once lost, it will be impossible to regain.