After Trojan Horse: Ofsted on the gallop

Est. read time: 21 min

The Trojan Horse debacle has highlighted more than any other issue in recent memory just what kind of schooling and education system we have and how utterly inappropriate the in-built measures for assessing and guaranteeing quality actually are. 

What is more, even in this democracy, the voices of criticism, let alone protest, about what is being done and projected as ‘normal’ in our name are so mellow, if not muted, that those doing the wrecking of our schooling and education system genuinely believe that there is consensual licence from the nation for what they are doing.

It is fast becoming clearer, in case anyone had any doubts, that the Trojan Horse fiasco and the government’s handling of it have implications for the entire nation and its schools and not just for the City of Birmingham. In the last couple weeks, schools in Tower Hamlets have come under the spotlight. Headteachers in Leicester, Rochdale, South and West Yorkshire are anticipating unannounced visits from Ofsted with results similar to those of inspections in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets.

I used to be a director of education in a very challenging borough, the London Borough of Hackney. One of the first things we did on assuming responsibility for education in Hackney was to create an Advisory and Inspection Service (AIS). On taking up my post in 1989, thereby becoming the first black chief education in the UK, HMI sat me down and presented evidence of 13 schools that were failing to provide an acceptable standard of education. I was given one term to demonstrate to the DfE (or whatever it was called at the time that Gillian Shepherd was in charge) how I would set about improving those schools.

The rationale for putting in place an AIS was my belief that performance management could be enhanced by taking people from where they were, often despite their best efforts, to where we required them to be.

The advisory function enabled us to listen to what they had to say for themselves; hear them describe the challenges they faced as a consequence of the environment in which they were operating; hear them say, even, why they felt they could not expect more from ‘kids like those’ and challenge them to change their mindset, set high expectations, encourage school students to do the same and teach as if they did have those high expectations; interrogate the extent to which they were in tune with the education aspirations of their community and were able to tell whether those aspirations had been dumbed down as a consequence of parents’ own negative experience of schooling, matched by poor schooling outcomes.

It was a process that situated the school in an organic relationship with its community, irrespective of whether that community was characterised by socio-economic status, level of unemployment, faith, percentage of refugees and asylum seekers, children for whom English was not the home language, or anything else.

This approach enabled us to identify and address any number of failings and deficiencies within any one school, including the lack of cultural competence, racism awareness, skills in people management, strategic vision, community awareness, or any other necessary leadership capacity on the part of headteachers and their senior management teams.

While it is admitted that in this market driven, commodified schooling and education system there is little difference between Ofsted and Ofwat, Ofgem, and the rest, the fact remains that schools are ever in a dynamic relationship with their students, the communities from which those students come and the complex, social, economic and political challenges in the society as a whole. As such, schools cannot expect students to divest themselves of the impact of those challenges and how they play out within their particular communities as they pass through the gates of the school.

It seems trite to say that there is much turbulence in the world of schooling and education just now. There is much turbulence in the world just now; turbulence that is beamed into our homes every day and etched into our consciousness through these electronic devices we carry around and that allow us to access news about what’s going on in any part of the world in real time at any time; turbulence that manifests in the globalised communities in this land wherein we dwell.

David Cameron and Theresa May

A few days ago, the Home Secretary Theresa May (above) declared her intention to lay a duty on schools to help prevent terror by identifying students who give rise to suspicion of being radicalised or of having extremist views and sympathies. Under the guise of ‘safeguarding’, schools are being required to act as ‘thought police’ in support of a government agenda to deal with ‘Islamist terrorism’ and stem the potential growth in the number of British jihadists who are assumed to have an appetite for murder and mayhem at home and abroad.

This new narrative and the government agenda that drives it rarely, if ever, highlights the legitimacy of and indeed the necessity for dealing with these matters as proper curriculum subjects in a safe environment where young people could openly share their views, however abhorrent, and have those views subjected to rigorous and informed challenge and debate.

Students browse websites for all sorts of reasons and those reasons are not always what we would consider wholesome, whether they are to do with talking about suicide, pornography, gratuitous acts of violence, or about converting guns and making bombs. Some of them engage with that material outside school and in the company of others who are not in the care, or on the radar, of any school.

The critical issue, therefore, is how schools engage with that reality, not by having a visible or covert presence of anti-terror operatives in the school, side by side with the existing police presence, but by creating space for students and teachers, as well as students and students to deal with these matters, routinely and organically, as curricular issues as they support and guide and are guided through their social, moral, spiritual and academic development and their acquisition of emotional and political literacy.

Ever since the bombings in London in 2005 which mirrored the devastation in 9/11 in New York in 2001, the British state has been embarrassed, incredulous and panic stricken at the thought that the suicide bombers responsible for the slaughter of 52 innocent people on the London transport system were home grown and ‘Made in Britain’.

Since then, there have been all manner of claims and counter-claims to do with ‘ingratitude and lack of patriotism towards the magnanimous “host” country that accommodated them and their parents/grandparents’; the ‘deathly dangers of multiculturalism’; the nation’s failure to integrate its ethnic minorities, and much else besides. And just when the nation believed it had laid all that to rest in the same coffin as multiculturalism, two more singularly ungrateful and barbaric British residents slaughtered gunner Lee Rigby on the streets of Greenwich.

Leaving aside for a moment the warped ideology of ISIS and whatever views young Muslims in Britain might have about Britain’s role in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria, or their partisan stance in relation to Israel and Palestine, the fact remains that there is precious little evidence of this nation juxtaposing its domestic policies and practices vis a vis race, human rights and politics with its foreign policies and exploits.

So assured it is about the legitimacy of its stance, that the British state has never stopped to consider that in the same way that the Jewish communities in London, Manchester and elsewhere have a position on Israel and seek to influence British and European foreign policy on the basis of that stance, Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK might have as robust and inflexible a stance on Britain’s role in the Middle East generally and in relation to the Palestine question in particular.

What is more, it appears to have had no expectation that any section of its population would feel and demonstrate allegiance – even to the point of giving their lives – to foreign governments and foreign causes.

This demand of ‘allegiance to Britain’ plays out in any number of ways: citizenship tests (which few monarchists in the population would pass, let alone the ‘keep Britain white’ racists, xenophobes and neo-fascists; these tests would not have been introduced if the government’s concerns were only to do with immigration from the EU member states, or from other European countries aspiring to join the EU club); proficiency in English (in a nation that has an almost genetically determined phobia about foreign languages); evidence of a lack of support for, or empathy with, the struggles of the people of Palestine, or Iraq, or Diego Garcia.

In other words, citizenship tests and the requirement that immigrants demonstrate awareness of and commitment to ‘British values’ are about managing immigration as racialised. At the end of the day, it’s about who is considered to be kith and kin and who isn’t. Who could be presumed to be civilised and not a thousand miles away from what is quintessentially British by virtue of racial origin, ethnicity and tradition and who cannot.

Meanwhile, police stops and searches and other forms of intrusive surveillance in support of the ‘prevent’ agenda continue apace; the Far Right is allowed free rein within the very multiethnic communities they set out to abuse, harass and intimidate and a process of essentialising takes place, whereby every young South Asian male, even before it is established that he is a Muslim, is assumed to be radicalised or on the verge of so being and therefore in need of attention by the spotters of potential jihadists.

By far the most glaring indictment of Ofsted as the supposedly independent, quality assurance arm of the schooling system is the ease with which it has determined that schools that were deemed ‘outstanding’ yesterday should be assessed as failing and needing special measures today, almost exclusively on account of lack of attention to the ‘safeguarding’ and ‘prevent’ agenda.

Deaths that result from the warped ideology of jihadists and the obsessive beliefs of suicide bombers are no more final, tragic and unsettling to the soul of any nation than deaths that result from the obsessive xenophobia or certainty of their racial superiority of neo-fascists, police officers, immigration officials, prison guards, or any other agent of the state.

Yet, the nation state focuses on Africans and Asians as the uncivilised, barbaric foreign threat whom we careless allow to constitute ‘the enemy within’, devoid of knowledge and understanding of, let alone allegiance to ‘British values’, unaccustomed to any notion of ‘the rule of law’ and generally needing to be tamed and civilised before they could be considered eligible to be included as ‘belonging’.

I recently worked with a group of Black and Global Majority headteachers drawn from a range of cities outside London and the South of England. A number of them were leading schools with 90% Muslim students, even though their schools were not designated faith schools. Their take on the Ofsted inspections in East Birmingham (Trojan Horse territory) and Tower Hamlets was most revealing. In summary, this is what they shared:

  • We were naturally pleased to receive an ‘outstanding’ assessment from Ofsted. Among the things Ofsted took into account was our sensitivity in assisting our students to deal appropriately with the demands of their parents and elders in relation to things like: pre-marital relationships; modes of dress; mixed (male/female) groups forming study circles and working together to improve their grades; other intergenerational challenges. It should not be assumed, therefore, that these thorny religious and political issues are not flagged up unless they are identified as falling under the ‘prevent’ or ‘radicalisation’ banner;
  • I had a prolonged battle with my predominantly Muslim parents on the issue of sex education. They were adamant that it should not be introduced to students before Year 11, if at all. The content of the sex education syllabus was anathema to many of them, to the extent that they threatened to withdraw their children from the school. It was necessary to deal with that very sensitively, having regard to those parents’ own upbringing and their genuinely held beliefs. One thing was clear. They were not antagonistic towards the school and were happy that in every other sense the school was ensuring the best outcomes for their children. I therefore had to take the issue into the community, meet with parents collectively, demand to be allowed to speak about the issue in the Mosque during Friday prayers and choose and develop a small group of community liaison officers who could familiarise themselves with what we do concretely in the school and to what end, so that they could reassure the groups to which they are organically linked in the community;
  • You cannot separate those difficult and complex issues from students’ performance in exams, any more than you can exercise control over what they do when they are outside school and not under the watchful eye of their parents/families. If we don’t engage with them and give them the confidence to open us and share with us the complex matters they are trying to understand and adopt a very personal position upon, they will inevitably fill that vacuum by absorbing whatever a prophet of doom or a proponent of jihad might throw at them.
  • Ofsted has a very mechanistic approach to these matters and in my experience few Ofsted inspectors understand them. You can apply any number of do’s and don’ts. You can have in place any number of safeguarding and prevent strategies and policies. At the end of the day, teaching children and guiding them to exercise sound judgement and adopt a moral code that is about a respect for humankind and the need to treat people fairly and justly is a dynamic business. We don’t always get it right, nor do we always win everybody over to our point of view. I strongly believe, however, that it is by acknowledging the dilemmas young people face and assisting them in dealing with their confusion, or in challenging their certainties, that we prevent their unquestioning acceptance of nihilistic doctrines and ideologies.
  • We work with and are managed by governors. Some of them are very hard work and often more so than the students. If governors believe that it is their duty to represent what they take to be the consensus within the community, a consensus from which the school must be prevented from deviating, then you really have a problem. In this sense, parent power comes with a price tag. The role of the school in this situation is to work with governors, students and the community and help align their aspirations with the best interests of children and with what we are required to do by law. In this context, the interests of parents and of the wider community and the interests of students are not always the same. The school has therefore to navigate the spaces in between and equip students with the strategies for managing all that stuff when they are not in school.

Most of those colleagues felt that Ofsted’s inspections of schools in Birmingham and in Tower Hamlets failed to reflect the above nuances and complexities and that the inspectors were not in the schools long enough to be able to make a reliable assessment of the extent to which those schools were or were not potentially exposing the students to ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’. From what I have seen of the inspection reports from both places and the superficial and non-contextualised approach of the inspectors who produced those reports, I can only agree.

If we believe that:

  1. The primary and ultimate purpose, the Alpha and Omega, of schooling and education is to humanize society;
  2. Education is not just for equipping people with skills for the workplace, or for enhancing the nation’s economic competitiveness in a global free market economy, but rather, it is for developing in people the skills and competences to take control of their own lives and to function as responsible social citizens, demanding and safeguarding their own rights, having due regard to and respect for the rights of others, and embracing their responsibilities to themselves, their families and to society;
  3. It is the duty of schools to ensure that regardless of the beliefs or dispositions of parents/carers, or of learners themselves, children and young people are provided with the knowledge, understanding and skills to be at ease with and respect themselves so that they can respect others, especially people who are different from themselves;
  4. It is the duty of home and school to assist children in developing self confidence, insight, emotional and political literacy and situating themselves in the learning community and in society as active citizens, irrespective of their belief system, interdependent and capable of working with others to bring about change…

If we believe the above, then we need to accept that at this political conjuncture, it is absolutely necessary to rethink what it is we are asking schools to deliver. Attending to students’ holistic development and their acquisition of emotional and political literacy and a moral code to guide them through life cannot be seen as a side show to the main movie of their relentless pursuit of academic excellence and high grade examination results. Schools cannot be expected to develop young people in this challenging political climate both at home and abroad while performing, however clandestinely, the role of GCHQ.

Nor can the government insist that schools conduct their business as if the norm is to have white, English and Christian schools serving white, English, Christian communities, while any and everything else is to be seen as suspect, to be tolerated at best and to be regarded as posing a threat to the very concept of British schooling and to the social order at worst.

How else does one explain the legal requirement in a globalised country such as this, with an ever expanding population of non-believers, or believers of other faiths, that all pupils in primary and secondary schools must participate in a daily act of worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character“, unless parents formally request that their children be allowed to withdraw?

The underlying fault line in the system is that schooling is still characterised by the structured omission of issues to do with ideology, exploitation, power, discrimination, inequality and social injustice. Whether we teach Religious Studies or Quantum Physics, we do not occupy neutral, non-ideological space, nor are we simply engaging in neutral ‘knowledge transfer’ activity. In this regard, it is worth remembering one of the many things Paulo Freire said about education:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

The current state of Britain and the impact of globalisation upon it demand that the purpose, function and craft of schooling have regard to ever changing realities and to the speed with which young people respond to, as well as help generate those realities. The Trojan Horse affair and Ofsted’s undeclared role as foot soldiers for GCHQ have thrown into sharp relief the need for a radical appraisal of the role of schools in preparing young people to help fix the cracks in the superstructure and to shape and manage a future that is not based upon the tired, dysfunctional and oppressive models that have this society so ill at ease with itself.

In the wake of Trojan Horse and Tower Hamlets, I believe education practitioners, parents and students alike have an opportunity to go beyond critiquing Ofsted on its own terms and refocus the debate on what schooling is for and what, therefore, the role of schools should be at the interface with their communities and their educational aspirations, having regard to the status of those communities in society, a status defined by class and socio-economic profile, race, religion, nationality, residency, or affiliation or otherwise to the European club.

It seems almost inevitable that Ofsted will hop about the country to police the ‘prevent’ agenda, inspecting without prior notice and seeking to ambush schools, irrespective of whether or not they are grappling with issues such as were described by the headteachers whose testimonies I précised above.

I believe headteachers across the country and particularly in areas such as London, Leicester, Rochdale, Huddersfield, Bradford, should network and share their own perspectives on what they are being required to do and how they would rigorously monitor Ofsted’s operations and hold that supposedly independent body to account.

If communities, teaching unions and headteachers were to perform that function, we stand a good chance of focusing schools and the country on how we might do things differently and serve children better, without the mass hysteria over potential jihad in Britain, or the prospect that our schools are, unwittingly, training camps for jihadists who are biding their time before piercing the heart of our nation, or going to join the ranks of terrorists abroad.

It behoves us all to spare a thought for those students in Years 10–13 in the schools in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets that have been inspected by Ofsted since Trojan Horse, especially those that have been placed in special measures, and the impact those inspection reports and the publicity they received would have upon the students’ prospects for progression to university, or traineeships, or employment, not to mention their career prospects.

"Former Education Secretary Michael Gove at Chantry High School" by Regional Cabinet (Flickr - CC BY 2.0)

“Former Education Secretary Michael Gove at Chantry High School” by Regional Cabinet (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

The government is using Ofsted to police schools and target Muslim communities in relation to the Prevent’ agenda in much the same way that it empowered the police to use Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 to racialise street crimes and target black youths for ‘suspicion of being about to commit an arrestable offence’. The use and abuse of ‘sus’ laws resulted in the criminalisation of loads of black young people and messed up their life chances. The results for students in schools pounced upon by Ofsted are likely to be the same, even though no evidence of radical extremism or allowing students to ‘prepare for terror’ is found.

Is this really what we want for our schooling system?

Is the government going to be equally vigilant and bullish about safeguarding black children from the damaging effects of structural, institutional and cultural racism that so defines the society’s interactions with them and prevent white children from being radicalised into racist and xenophobic extremism? Is it going to ensure that Ofsted puts schools into special measures if they are found to be failing to meet the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and to protect children from personal and institutional forms of racism?

The fact remains that that protection of our nation that the government seeks to guarantee through its ‘prevent’ and safeguarding agenda is not afforded to all citizens and some citizens are not placed under surveillance or made subject to indiscriminate police stops and searches on account of the ‘terror’ they unleash upon sections of their own community. They therefore feel emboldened to sow fear, cause mayhem and engage in racist attacks and (sometimes) murders, while proudly and defiantly carrying the Union and St George’s Flags, in the full knowledge that the police and the state have never seen their predecessors, including the National Front, Column 88 and the BNP as ‘terrorists’, or as a threat to the nation and its security.

As an educator, I consider these legitimate matters for building and delivering curriculum, in order, especially, to encourage school (and college) students of all ethnicities to examine what this means for them all as they forge an identity as young British people, what the role of schooling and education should be in relation to it all and how they can work together to make sure that they, collectively, are building a future with the hallmark of racial justice and human rights, rather than one of chaos, racial conflict and the lack of a guarantee of state protection for all citizens.

This is what I believe the Trojan Horse affair must lead to as far as young people of whatever ethnicity are concerned and teachers and headteachers should have the courage to engage with it, in spite of Ofsted, and in the spirit of Equality and Human Rights legislation and the ‘rights approach’ to schooling that the Children’s Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, has just been consulting upon.

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