Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Faith Schools and Trojan Horses

Updated Wednesday morning

The media reports of recent OFSTED inspections of a number of Birmingham schools, linked to the “Trojan Horse affair” alleging Islamist extremism, have led the British Humanist Association to call for a wider review of the place of religion in schools, see BHA: Birmingham schools findings reflect need for wider review of place of religion in schools

Today the BHA has called for a wider review of the place of religion in state-funded schools.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘It is vital that every young person receives a broad and balanced education in an environment that is free from discrimination on the basis of religion, gender or sexual orientation and that prepares them for life in wider British society. It is only if schools provide such an education in such an environment that we can live in a society where everyone is treated equally with tolerance and respect. Park View has been failing to do this, and we are pleased that that is now set to change.

‘However, these issues speak more widely to the need for a thorough review of the place of religion in schools. While controversy has raged about these admittedly serious problems, there has been no similar level of concern expressed about the all-too-common situation where a pupil is unable to get into their local Church of England school because their parents are not Christian; a teacher is unable to find employment at a Catholic school because they are not Catholic; or a child is left distressed or sidelined because of Christian proselytising in an assembly in a school with no religious character. While these situations are allowed to continue, it is no surprise that some people of another faith will take existing schools of no religious character and effectively treat them as their own “faith” schools. This kind of behaviour will only be stopped once no school is legally able to discriminate against any pupil, parent or member of staff.’

Church of England officials have responded strongly, see this article by Arun Arora which has also appeared over here.

Birmingham, the BHA, Religious Education and Church Schools

The publication of the OFSTED report into 21 schools in Birmingham linked to the so called “Trojan Horse” affair led to a flurry of tweets and comment from the British Humanist Association (BHA) yesterday. The thrust of their contention - that the OFSTED report showed the damage done by the presence of faith schools in the education system – is a shaky attempt to build one of the BHA’s long held aims into the news agenda. The tweeting of a comment from the debate on the report was typical: “Great from @crispinbluntmp - there should be no faith schools, every school should prepare pupils for life in wider British society”.

Unfortunately for the BHA the facts do little to support their claims. The fundamental problem with the BHA’s argument is that none of the schools being looked into in Birmingham are faith schools.

Not one.

Of the 21 Birmingham schools investigated by Ofsted, 8 are Academies and 13 are local authority run. So the BHA’s argument that “the way to stop this kind of thing is to make get rid of faith schools” is not simply misleading, it is so far off the mark as to require special measures.

Perhaps one of the deeper ironies of the BHA’s attempt to hijack this issue for their own aims is that it is a perfect example of using a “Trojan Horse”; using the OFSTED findings as subterfuge for attacking the work of church schools not least in Birmingham itself.

At the same time that the BHA was going into overdrive about the OFSTED report, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, was making his maiden speech in the House of Lords. His theme was education. In his speech Bishop Stephen noted that the diocese of Chelmsford has recently accepted an invitation to be a co-sponsor of the London Design and Engineering University Technical college where in addition to receiving technical and practical training, Religious Education will be given a high priority on the curriculum. The Bishop noted that the trustees of the college recognise that it is “impossible to understand and inhabit the modern world – especially in East London – without a critical appreciation of faith, and even more than this, a mature spiritual, moral, social and cultural worldview. Moreover, good religious education has been shown to be one of the best ways of countering religious extremism. “

In an interview after his speech Stephen Cottrell warmed to this theme saying “RE, perhaps in the past, might have been something which was just of academic interest. Now it’s of practical relevance to actually understand who is my neighbour, how do I love and understand and appreciate my neighbour…One of the things that most obviously contributes to cohesion between people of different cultures and different faiths is proper appreciation and understanding of different faith traditions”

The Church of England educates a million children a day in its schools. Even the BHA, in its more reflective moments, would be hard pressed to describe CofE Schools as hotbeds of religious extremism or indoctrination. The contrast between some of the findings in the recent OFSTED investigation and the experience of those educated at Church of England schools stand in marked contrast. As the former Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, wrote of his own experience of Church of England primary and secondary schools: “I went to Christian schools, St Mary’s Church Primary, then Christ’s College Finchley. We Jews were different and a minority. Yet not once was I insulted for my faith.”

The work of Church of England schools in Birmingham is evidence of Stephen Cottrell’s contention that the best way of countering religious extremism is to engage with faith and not banish it. For over a decade some Church of England primary schools in the city have had an almost 100% school roll from Muslim families, serving children from local communities in the inner city. Every Church of England School in the city educates children of all faiths and none. Meanwhile the Church of England’s only secondary school in the city provides an account of excellence and achievement in the midst of challenging circumstances.

St Alban’s Academy is the only state-funded Church of England secondary school in Birmingham and is the nearest secondary school to the city centre. The proportion of students known to be eligible for free school meals is very much higher than the national average. The percentage of students from minority ethnic backgrounds is over four times higher than the national figure and the proportion of those who speak English as an additional language is high. The percentage of students registered by as having special educational needs and/or disabilities is well above the national average.

The School’s most recent OFSTED report – from 2011 – found the school was “outstanding”. The report said “From exceptionally low attainment on entry, students leave with above average attainment and outstanding achievement.” The report further highlights the achievements of the school in providing: “outstanding spiritual, moral, social and cultural development that underpins students’ exemplary behaviour and makes an exceptional contribution to their excellent learning.”

This is the experience of millions of families who have been served by Church of England schools which remains a testament at firm odds with the doctrinaire dogmatism and opportunism of the BHA.

There is also this interview by Nigel Genders the newly-appointed Church of England Chief Education Officer.

Some media reports and comment (Updated Wednesday morning):

Dan Hodges All faith-based schools are Trojan Horse schools. Let’s ban every single one of them
Tim Stanley Trojan horse plot: the problem isn’t faith schools, it’s Islamic fundamentalism
Graeme Paton ‘Selection by faith’ axed at new wave of Anglican schools

John Harris The lesson of Birmingham? State education is in chaos
Simon Jenkins When Whitehall meddles in schools, it’s only ever bad news

BBC Sean Coughlan What is the fall out from the Trojan Horse?

Church Times Madeleine Davies Birmingham schools hit back at OFSTED after critical reports

Daily Mail Manzoor Moghal I fear Islamic extremism in these schools is just the tip of the iceberg

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 6:17pm BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Church of England

This present crisis is also the result of Gove's attempt to undermine state education by allowing free schools and academies. Millions have been poured into these ventures.

As for British values.. I am not sure I share them all, and maybe I have more in common ground with Muslims in some areas.

Posted by: robert ian williams on Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 8:34pm BST

The undisguised contempt for the BHA's foolish and misleading reaction to this important enquiry turns this into a religious war rather than a cool statement of how deeply flawed their statement is. I was sorry to see this opportunity wasted by Arora's bile and invective.
He is the wrong man for this job.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 10:07pm BST

Oh I don't know Martin, Arun's prose looks quite mild alongside some LGCM press releases of yesteryear.
Perhaps you would like to indicate in more detail what you think should have been said?

Posted by: Simon Sarmiento on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 6:55am BST

Arun Arora comes from Birmingham, is a Christian from a minority ethnic background and is a former lawyer. I think that qualifies him to do this much-needed demolition of the BHA's shambolic attempt to cash in on the crisis in these Birmingham schools. His piece is not vitriolic - indeed it is a model of cool reason written in an engaging way.

(Oh dear - I taught Arun at Cranmer Hall - that last sentence reads like a comment on one of his essays...)

Posted by: Charles Read on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 9:12am BST

Another very misguided comment in the Times from Alice Thompson on a similar lines - she recalls looking across as a pupil herself to the (presumably private) Jewish enclosed school nearby, whilst at her ('formerly run by Anglican nuns, and so presumably CofE) school they learnt about all faiths in openness, but still goes on to condemn state-funded religious schools. The real issue surely is that there are and always will be parents who desire to have their children brought up within the bounds of their strong faith. The challenge is, do we restrict this (by not allowing strong faith identities in schools) and so driving people into private and less-regulated religious schools (or even home-schooling, not uncommon among conservative Christians), or encourage the uneasy and difficult partnership with the state, through which mutual respect might be reached.

Posted by: Neil Patterson on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 10:56am BST

In the US atheists object to a pledge of national allegiance that references a god, opening a board of management meeting with prayer (much less a school assembly) and sues any school that remotely acknowledges Christmas. I wonder if the BHA would argue that the US system is less likely to lead to fundamentalism than the UK or even Irish systems. The ones currently in place here have been very successful in promoting secularism.

Posted by: Andrew F. Pierce on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 12:44pm BST

I am against faith schools of any description. Although the BHA's reaction is misinformed in some respects, Arun Arora doesn't respond to the central charge. And teaching people about religion doesn't require faith schools.

Posted by: John on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 1:18pm BST

I am encouraged that Simon is able to recall LGCM press releases from so long ago the fact that they continue to have some impact is heartening, and glad that too Mr Arora has fans though we were recently reminded by Mr Fittall that only friends call him Arun.

My view stands. He missed the high ground and that was a serious tactical error.

I cannot find much reference to his piece and there's the rub.

However the Daily Telegraph front page today carries a major story saying the CofE plans to abandon the religious qualification for its schools. Am I the only one who thinks there is a failure in joined up thinking at Church House?

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 2:51pm BST

I do not always find myself in agreement with Mr Arora and would not describe myself as a fan but in this case I do not find the "bile and invective" or "undisguised contempt" that Mr Reynolds suggests. Perhaps I am not looking hard enough....

Posted by: Fr Paul on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 4:54pm BST

For once - o res mirabilis! - I agree with RIW. What exactly are these "British values" our schools are supposed to inculcate? If the Education Secretary is the embodiment of "British values" then I very much doubt I share any of them.

One increasingly strident answer - exemplified by the statement from the BHA - seems to be that secularism in all its many forms should be our national religious ideology. Those promoting this view do so by arguing spuriously that secularism is not a religious ideology at all, but merely an ideological vacuum: an unadorned space like a Reformer's chapel emptied of all the gods and idols that have been swept away into the private sphere. Of course this is untrue and it is dishonest; secularism is a system of religious values and normative claims like any other. I'm tempted to say that in this sense all schools are 'faith schools.' And I'm inclined to place more trust in those that expound a faith rooted in ancient religious communities than in those that subscribe to Mr Gove's made-up "British values."

Posted by: rjb on Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 11:21am BST

What is wrong with Mr Arora's response?

Firstly, it seems to rather blatantly misrepresent what BHA actually said. Mr Arora asserts that they confuse religion in non-church state schools (Birmingham) and faith schools (the CofE elsewhere). But actually, their statement is very clear about the distinction - they seek a review of religion in state schools, not just of faith schools, and they advance an argument why the Birmingham fiasco in non-faith schools is linked to faith schools. Mr Arora may believe they are wrong but in that case he should point out why, not lampoon them for confusing things that they didn't confuse and criticise something they didn't say.

Secondly, his language is, if not laden with "bile", unworthily snooty in places - "so far off the mark as to require special measures", "Even the BHA, in its more reflective moments..." I would hope the church could debate these issues with a little more respect and charity in evidence.

Third, his final section trumpets the virtues of St Aldan's. I don't find this terribly relevant to the argument - it smacks of saying "if we tell you often enough how virtuous we are you’ll forget about the criticism" - and his statistics on the background of the pupils are uninterpretable unless you know how it compares to the background of the community it draws on.

All in all, this struck me as par for the course for a press release from a political spin doctor or campaigning group - but not the style I would like to see the church adopt.

Posted by: John Swanson on Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 3:10pm BST

"they advance an argument why the Birmingham fiasco in non-faith schools is linked to faith schools"

I'm really struggling to find this argument about any specific link with the Birmingham situation in the passage from the BHA that I have quoted above. Please could you explain it to me.

Posted by: Simon Sarmiento on Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 6:46pm BST


You've got me questioning my own reading of the words now! But "while these situations are allowed to continue, it is no surprise that some people of another faith will take existing schools of no religious character and effectively treat them as their own "faith" schools" seems to me a clear argument that the alleged behaviour of some Muslims in Birmingham is driven partly by the existence of church schools. We may think it's a weak argument - but that's kind of my point - if the argument is weak, why not address (and demolish) it, why misrepresent and evade it instead?

Posted by: John Swanson on Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 9:39pm BST

The issue is state schools being made quasi-independent..the deliberate Tory policy to undermine state education.

Academies and free schools now free from local authority control.. a disaster. My school is under a first rate local authority and we do not have such aberrations in Wales. Gove's authority has no sway west of Offas's Dyke.

Posted by: Riobert ian Williams on Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 10:25pm BST

"...a child is left distressed or sidelined because of Christian proselytising in an assembly in a school with no religious character" describes the situation in the United States, where religious fundamentalists have been conducting worship services in public schools. They confuse children by making them believe one must do a particular brand of religion. Katherine Stewart has written an excellent book The Good News Club on this topic.

This battle is ongoing in American courts.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Posted by: Gary Paul Gilbert on Friday, 13 June 2014 at 5:06am BST

What I wonder do TA readers make of this article

in yesterday's Guardian which inter alia asks this question:

But has Gove sent inspectors to root out anti-abortionism and homophobia in Catholic or evangelical-sponsored schools, or cultural isolation in mainly white schools where racism is rife.
Not at all. Nor has he investigated the influence in schools of far-right extremists.

On the other hand, the detailed list of failings catalogued in this letter to one of the schools is quite scary.


Posted by: Simon Sarmiento on Friday, 13 June 2014 at 8:58am BST

And here is the Church Times report on the matter


Posted by: Simon Sarmiento on Friday, 13 June 2014 at 9:02am BST

Like others, I think A. Arora's tone is quite inappropriate. Especially on such a weighty matter: much weightier than his casual attempts to dismiss academics who had pointed out that his history was wrong.

Posted by: iain mclean on Friday, 13 June 2014 at 12:24pm BST

Matthew Parris' piece in 'The Times' was a refreshing corrective to all the hysteria.

Posted by: John on Saturday, 14 June 2014 at 4:30pm BST
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