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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Trojan Horse - a sense of proportion needed

A sense of proportion means not only understanding how small something is; it also means understanding how large some things are. I do, therefore, appreciate the enormity of what I have read in this week's media accounts of Ofsted's reports on some schools attended by Muslims in Birmingham. I have blogged previously here about the need to tackle extremism of this sort (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/nick-clegg-on-extremism.html) and I get entirely that we are talking about an extremist political ideology (radical islamism (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22640614), that is - not the great faith of Islam itself) that has inspired disgusting acts of violence, terrorism and intolerance in which huge numbers of innocent people have been killed, maimed and subjugated. The presence of such an ideology in schools (any schools, not just British schools) cannot be tolerated and must be stopped.

Why, then, do I call for a sense of proportion? Just because some details of what I read in the media give me pause for thought. If segregation of pupils by gender within a school is extreme, then how much more 'extreme' is segregation of pupils by gender between schools, so that some schools only take boys and some only take girls - and yet I attended an all-boys school, which was not (then) a faith school, but was an ordinary state comprehensive school.

I utterly condemn any segregation of female pupils that leads to their getting an inferior education, but do I condemn all separation (not 'segregation') of different genders for educational purposes? And if I do condemn that, then surely I have to condemn my own old school? And on this question of separation by gender, see also: http://www.thejc.com/comment/columnists/a-wedding-guest%E2%80%99s-discourtesy.

I also read the Standard's horror-struck account of a male Muslim teacher who reportedly would not shake hands with a female Ofsted inspector. I cannot remember when I last shook hands with someone at the start of a work meeting and, if I was teaching at a British school in one of those Continental countries in which it is customary for all men to greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, then I would not kiss a visiting male school inspector - would that be taken as a terrible sign of disrespect for the culture of the country in which I was teaching? More seriously, married Orthodox Jewish men and women do not shake hands with any adult of the opposite gender apart from their own spouse, so this same female Ofsted inspector would have got the same reaction from a male teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school. So what? That doesn't make somebody a religious extremist.

Also in the Standard, there was a mention of 'Muslim campaigners' with Salma Yaqoob in the lead, with readers being invited to infer that these 'campaigners' have some sort of communal sanction from British Muslims, but what evidence is there that Ms Yaqoob is a representative Muslim leader? She is no longer even a local councillor or the Leader of Respect, and who does Respect necessarily represent anyway?

It is indeed disturbing to read about schools refusing to teach evolution. It is shocking to read of a faith school at which Ofsted finds that "not enough attention is given to history, geography, science, technology, creative activities and physical education", with pupils having "a very limited understanding of other cultures and faiths and only a sketchy understanding of public institutions and services in England. They told the inspector that they had little involvement in their local and wider community other than their immediate religious community." I am disturbed to read one columnist's claim that "In north London, and Gateshead, stories circulate of 'secret schools', to which sectarian...parents send their children for an education which is almost exclusively religious, claiming to the education authorities that they have sent their offspring abroad."

And yet everything that I quoted in the last paragraph was taken from the Jewish Chronicle (http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/118162/should-faith-schools-be-able-drop-evolution, http://www.thejc.com/community/community-life/115626/school-criticised-ofsted, http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/columnists/111769/confront-charedi-taliban) and was not about Muslim schools, but was about an Anglo-Jewish school or schools.

What does that prove? Only that the problems of some Muslim-majority schools are not unique and that it must be possible to debate these issues without stigmatising Jews or Muslims, Islam or Judaism. I am not, incidentally making any absurd - no, not absurd, obscene - analogy between those criticisms of one or more Jewish schools on the one hand, and Ofsted's reports this week on some schools attended by Muslims in Birmingham on the other. I know that the latter schools are reported to have been affected by an extremist political ideology (again, I don't mean Islam - I mean radical islamism) that has absolutely no equivalent among Jews - no such comparison can remotely be made and I am not here suggesting otherwise.

As I understand it, these Birmingham schools affected by the "Trojan Horse" are not actually faith schools; they are secular (state) schools attended predominantly by Muslims and with several governors who are Muslims. Were these schools actually to be registered clearly as faith schools, would it not actually be easier (rather than harder) to regulate how they teach the faith, what they say about other faiths, etc?

If that means that I am making a case for faith schools, then I should say that I actually wish that there were no faith schools, while recognising the right of parents who disagree with me to demand such schools for their children. There are many excellent faith schools and I wholeheartedly support their right to expand and flourish and open new schools, while bluntly wishing that parents didn't want them.

There is no substitute for being at school with an open cross-section of the kids who live in one's local area, as I did at my school in Finchley in North London, where the pupils came from a wide variety of faith and ethnic backgrounds. We were all boys together and the pupils from different backgrounds were simply my peers in the classroom and the playground.

I know that faith schools engage each other in football tournaments and other efforts to bring kids of different faiths together despite their being educated at different schools, but that's simply not the same thing as going to an ordinary school to which all the local parents (from all communities) have sent some of their kids. Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland teach us what can be the consequences of sending all or most pupils to denominational schools at which they have no Protestant or Catholic schoolfriends from the other side of the divide, and so I wish parents were not now opting for faith schools here in England, but they are, and I accept their right to do so (especially as some of the schools concerned are such very good ones), while wanting such schools to continue to be regulated in terms of what pupils are taught about the wider world, other faiths, secular culture, etc.

I would suggest that such regulated faith schools (schools that are open about being faith schools, and so can be regulated as such) are preferable to what I understand Ofsted to be reporting in Birmingham, which is that some governors of a particular faith are altering the character of some secular, non-faith schools and failing to shield pupils from extremist influences.

Assuming that Ofsted is correct, then the situation in Birmingham is a serious one and I agree with the Coalition Government's approach to tackling it: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10890776/Children-should-learn-British-values-such-as-freedom-and-tolerance-says-David-Cameron.html.

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