The problems the inspectors found don’t seem to have been the ones that they were sent looking for. Despite its unconvincing claims of being politically neutral, Ofsted is responsible for pushing through a thoroughgoing neo-liberalisation of education in England. On this occasion it was primed to go into a part of London with a large Bangladeshi Muslim population looking for evidence of Islamic extremism in schools. It didn’t find any. Tory hopes that they could launch a campaign along the lines of the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham were dashed. In no school could they find a scintilla of proof that pro-jihadi governors or staff were planning a takeover.
In one Church of England secondary school, Sir John Cass, which has an overwhelmingly Bangladeshi population, they found that some sixth formers had run a Facebook site which had a couple of dodgy links. So a school in which inspectors say “teaching is good”, “students make outstanding progress in English and mathematics” and “disadvantaged students, disabled students and students with educational needs achieve well” was graded as inadequate. The same school had been rated outstanding in its two previous inspections and its veteran head teacher was give a CBE The school and the local authority immediately admitted that there had been some sloppiness in how students’ use of social media was monitored but the press coverage was disproportionately hostile. You wonder whether they understand social media at all. Zoe Williams in the Guardian on the 24th November wrote a good article putting a sense of proportion into the whole affair:
“How much ideological adventure are sixth formers allowed to have before they’re being “extreme”? If you follow Isis on Twitter, you would be exposed to radicalism. Even Googling Isis would probably expose you to more radicalism than the crocodiles-at-the-boat lobby would find acceptable.”
Exactly, the Ofsted report that blights this school with special measures almost entirely hinges on two deficiencies.
Firstly, the fact that the police had contacted the school some months before the inspection about student use of social media but the school leadership and governors did not respond appropriately. It is very difficult to establish the facts of this inappropriate use. All the report quotes are a jihadi video posting and one student threatening other students with ‘severe consequences if they went to a leavers’ party or were for ‘free mixing’. Was this the only post? Was it a regular thing? What was the nature of the sites? Elsewhere in the report it says how “students understanding of different faiths and cultural viewpoints is developed well”. Ofsted even notes the Stonewall Champion status of the school and the anti-homophobic posters displayed but of course it found one student who did not quite understand what they were about.
Another way they exaggerate the child safety issue is when they say the school does not know exactly where all its sixth form students are throughout the day. Name me many schools where the management knows where all its sixthformers are at all times if you allow them to leave the site. You can stitch up a school pretty easily with the Ofsted method.
Secondly, there was the gender segregation in the play areas and in the sixth form areas. Clearly parents had never really raised this as a concern and staff had accepted it. The report states that girls were encouraged to participate and did so without problem in the classroom. Ofsted is confusing about the sixth form situation, on page 5 it says there were separate areas and on page 4 it states there was a mixed area but girls did not use it. Gender segregation of this sort is clearly wrong but to some extent this is the result of the way local education authorities have a lot less say in how schools are run following both Labour and Tory education policies. Great play has been made of Headteachers’ powers and the sovereignty of parental choice. You could see how this segregation came about as the school adapted too much to probably the majority community culture. From my own experience of working in Tower Hamlets, Cass was always a school that ploughed its own furrow and did not particularly do collaboration with the other schools. This segregation is certainly not the case in Swanlea, a local mixed school with a large Bangladeshi population.
In any case the Cass issues are of a totally different significance and scale to the ones found in the private Islamic schools. One difference between Sir John Cass and the six other schools that were inspected was that it is accountable to the local authority and can rely on getting a lot of support from experienced Tower Hamlets officials. Another difference is that it doesn’t charge parents £3-5000 a year to send their children to it.
The private Islamic schools received much more severe judgments than Sir John Cass. There is no external oversight of anything they do and, although Tower Hamlets council is legally responsible for keeping their children safe, no council official has the right to enter them without invitation. That is a contradiction which wasn’t mentioned in all the furore.
The media frenzy dwelt on things such as the absence of music, art and drama from the schools’ curricula. One five year old apparently said, to the horror of the Daily Telegraph, that “pupils should not participate in music or dance.” There was a lot of selective quotation like that.
What wasn’t picked up on was just what a second rate educational experience children get in these private schools. Ofsted wrote of one: “The school building is dirty and shabby and in need of significant repair. One staircase does not have a bannister. Some stairwells contain furniture and rubbish.” In another a fire exit was chained shut. Much of the teaching is second rate or worse and while the schools can point to good exam results they do this by not giving places to pupils with disabilities or statements of special educational need. Children may be equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of private proprietors trying to squeeze a profit out of families in one of the poorest parts of England.
There is absolutely nothing for socialists to defend in any sort of private education, nor in the removal of schools from scrutiny by local authorities. Some Tower Hamlets parents opted, for religious reasons, to give their children extremely restricted education with virtually no exposure to the arts and a negligible contact with non-Islamic views of the world. Instead they got a lot of rote learning in unsuitable buildings lacking outdoor play spaces. They were exercising a form of parental choice and the people who ran the schools were serving the market. The real scandal of the Tower Hamlets private Islamic schools is that people can get away for years making money offering an education which restricts children’s horizons. That is where the marketisation of education leads. It’s just that in the academy chains they are a bit more subtle about it and know that you shouldn’t really chain the fire exits.