A few months ago, before the story of alleged “Islamic extremism” in Birmingham schools broke, I arrived in the city to give a talk to teacher trainees. My cab driver started chatting and – as they do – asked what I was doing in Birmingham. When I told him I was an education lecturer and former headteacher, he launched into a fifteen-minute tirade.
His brother, he said, was a really good primary school teacher who had had excellent reports from Ofsted inspections but was now being driven out of the school where he worked by a new headteacher who was trying to impose conservative Islamic views in the school. “We are Muslims, my parents came from Pakistan” he said, “but we are Westernised and he has told my brother he wants him out of the school.”
He asked for my advice. I told him to tell his brother to do two things. First, speak to his union if he was a member of one and secondly, to speak privately to the Chair of Governors and tell him or her of his concerns. “That’s no good” he responded, “He’s already got rid of the old Chair of Governors and got in a new one who agrees with what he’s doing.”
I arrived at my destination and wished my cab driver and his brother well and thought nothing more of this story until this week. It is of course impossible to tell how much of this is true or even a balanced view of the governance of the school he was referring to, let alone the management style of the headteacher in question or indeed the performance of his brother as a teacher.
Even more difficult to assess are the similar allegations that have surfaced across twenty-five Birmingham schools. If there is indeed any truth to these, before we lose a sense of perspective about them through the prism of “Islamic fundamentalist” or “Al-Qaida sympathizer” scare stories, let’s just take a moment to compare them to some similar situations from other times and places.
I was a headteacher of a Church of England primary school in east London that defined itself by its Trust Deeds written in 1886 as “a school to serve all the community”. We had an extremely liberal admissions policy, guided by its Anglican vicar Chair of Governors, which prioritised residence proximity over Anglican affiliation. I was proud of that but I was well aware of many other neighboring C of E schools whose admission criteria were based primarily on regular parental Church attendance or communicant membership of the Church if they wanted to stand any chance of their children gaining entry to the coveted C of E secondary schools.
Until recent years, Catholic schools were a “closed-shop” for Catholics only – it was virtually impossible for a non-Catholic teacher to get appointed to a position in a Catholic school – a matter of naked discrimination that no-one seemed to question at the time.
When I was a young, left-wing, politically active teacher in Hackney in the 1980s I thought nothing of a headteacher at a neighboring primary school “going on strike” for a “Day of Action” in support of the campaign to release Nelson Mandela. She took all the school governors, staff and (quite a few) parents out with her too.
Indeed, if I had been a teacher at that school, I would have been happy to join her, but I was fighting battles of my own – trying to get the school governors to support the Miners Strike of all things. (Quite how I wanted the governors to do that, I’m not quite clear anymore, especially as the miners had Margaret Thatcher as their primary antagonist!) The school governors resisted my entreaties and told me to get on with my job of teaching primary school children.
One of the things I was told I must not do in those days was “to promote homosexuality… or the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” The Thatcher government introduced this measure as part of Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1986. Now considered notorious and extreme, it was only repealed in 2003.
More recently though, Lynne Dawes, the principal at the Oasis Academy Hadley in north London, has led a successful campaign to block the court-ordered deportation of Yashika Bageerathi, a Mauritian ‘A’-level student at the school – no doubt with the full support of the governing body.
Even now, school governors in ‘county’ maintained schools around the country have ‘political’ appointees from the mainstream political parties.
My point here is not:
that “extremist or conservative Islamic” headteachers have a right to promote their own religious or political agendas, I don’t think they do – but it is a fact that the governance of schools has always had a religious and a ‘political’ aspect. Indeed, this is likely to increase exponentially as schools become more and more independent through the Academies and Free School movements, liberating them from the flawed but at least democratically accountable constraints of local authorities.
My question here is:
where do the professional values of teachers overlap with the values of school governance? Should we be appointing or sacking governors at all – or indeed teachers – on the basis of their religious belief or their political affiliation – whether extreme or mainstream?
A couple of years ago, Michael Gove went on record to say that teachers who held extremist views (and at the time he was referring to members of the British National Party) had no place working in schools. He didn’t actually do anything about that mind… perhaps he discovered something called the European Charter on Human Rights?
Now the new Education Secretary says teachers “who failed to protect children from extremism” in Birmingham schools will face disciplinary panels.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.