What possible evidence does Ofsted chief have to suggest religious extremists are 'perverting' education?
Chris Allen, University of Birmingham
British schools are being used to “indoctrinate” students with extremist ideology, claims head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman.
In a recent speech, Spielman, the UK government’s chief inspector of schools and head of its education inspectorate, said that religious extremists are trying to “pervert education”. She suggests they are doing this by narrowing children’s horizons, isolating and segregating them, while simultaneously indoctrinating their “impressionable minds”.
Only a few years ago, much the same was being claimed as part of the Trojan Horse scandal in which a group of conservative Muslims were accused of working to take over a number of schools in Birmingham.
While extremism of any persuasion has no place in any British school, Spielman’s comments – like the Trojan Horse allegations – do not appear to be backed up by evidence. And much like David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, it would also seem that Spielman is targeting particular communities – namely Muslims.
Operation Trojan Horse began with the publication of an anonymous letter in the Sunday Telegraph alleging a plot by “Islamist extremists” to takeover around 20 state schools in Birmingham. While the letter’s authenticity was questioned from the outset, the allegations were investigated by both the Department for Education and Ofsted among others.
Ofsted’s own investigations uncovered no evidence of a takeover plot. Nor did it find any evidence of extremism in those schools. So while five schools were placed in special measures, none were linked with extremism of any kind.
Despite appointing Peter Clarke, former counter terrorism chief from the Metropolitan Police, to oversee the Department for Education’s investigations, it too found no evidence of a plot. Neither did it uncover any evidence of extremism. To date, no tangible evidence of extremism in schools – whether in Birmingham or elsewhere – has yet to emerge.
But the stain of accusation held strong, and the Trojan Horse allegations resulted in schools’ reputations ruined, and teacher’s careers destroyed. Communities were maligned and children were stigmatised. Author and journalist Peter Oborne referred to the plot as a “lurid figment of the neo-conservative imagination”.
Same old story
Yet, despite all of this, Spielman has called for action on the issue, suggesting a need for “muscular liberalism” to defeat “a passive liberalism that says anything goes”.
With this, Spielman is reiterating exactly what Cameron said while the Trojan Horse investigations were under way. In a series of speeches Cameron explained how the promotion of Britishness and British values would be the foundation upon which the government’s “muscular defence” against extremism would be built. As he went on, it became clear it was our “anything goes liberalism” that had laid the seedbed which allowed Islamist extremists to launch their “plot”.
These comments were all made before the findings of the investigations had been published. Cameron had seemingly already decided both the plot and the extremism in schools were real – as well as what the cause and solution was.
The death of multiculturalism?
Maybe more concerning though, is that Cameron used the exact phrase “muscular liberalism” in his much maligned 2011 security speech in Berlin. Claiming Britain’s multiculturalism had died, Cameron said:
We have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives … We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.
Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.
Widely seen to be a speech directed at Britain’s Muslims, the content of Cameron’s speech also came under criticism. The speech was delivered at the same time the far-right English Defence League (EDL) had organised one of its largest gatherings in history. And following reports the gathered demonstrators had routinely chanted Islamophobic slogans, both Muslim and anti-fascist groups claimed that Cameron had handed the far right a propaganda coup.
For the EDL and its supporters, the timing and the content of Cameron’s speech was interpreted as evidence that the government had finally come round to the far right’s way of thinking.
Spielman’s recent talk has been taken as a signal of her support for head teacher Neena Lall, who recently tried to prevent under eights from wearing the hijab in class. Lall also tried to stop younger pupils from fasting during Ramadan.
Just last year, Spielman also courted controversy after she recommend that Ofsted inspectors should question Muslim girls who wear the hijab in primary school. All of which, makes it very difficult to claim Spielman’s comments are not solely about Muslims.
Without evidence, Spielman’s claims are in many ways quite irresponsible. And as we have seen before, these types of allegations can have long lasting, detrimental, social and cultural impacts.
But more concerning is how a constant drip feed of allegations can result in these allegations becoming uncritically accepted, taken for granted and thereby seen to be common sense. The result of which, ultimately means more and more people will become ever more mistrusting and suspicious of Muslims, on the basis of there being no smoke without fire.Comment on this article
Chris Allen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Birmingham provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.