Recent research shows more than a quarter of secondary schools in England do not feature religious education on the syllabus. This is despite the subject being compulsory for all state-funded schools – which includes academies and free schools.
According to findings by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, many schools could be “breaking the law”, with pupils “missing out on religious education”.
Daily acts of Christian worship are required by law in all schools – except where there are special arrangements for other faiths. But with Christianity on the decline and the wider population of the UK becoming increasingly secular in orientation, there is a serious need for a debate about the role of religious education and collective worship in English schools. This is especially important when you take into account the fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the UK.
But this debate cannot happen while there is still such hysteria surrounding the so-called “Trojan Horse plot” to Islamicise schools – which made the headlines in 2014. The accusation was that a group of conservative Muslims were working to take over a number of schools in Birmingham.
The stain of accusation
Back in 2014, at the height of the Trojan Horse accusations, a special Ofsted inspection of 21 schools in Birmingham took place. It saw one of the schools – Park View academy – downgraded from the highest to the lowest rating overnight. The school had been previously rated as outstanding but was placed in special measures. Ofsted Inspectors alleged the school had failed to teach students enough about religions other than Islam, segregated boys and girls in classes, and had failed to give adequate sex education lessons.
Its senior leadership team and some other teachers were also subjected to professional misconduct inquiries by the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL). The government also went on to require schools to promote “fundamental British values” and outlined a new counter-extremism strategy, stating:
As Trojan Horse demonstrated, children can be vulnerable to purposeful efforts by extremists to take control of their schools and create a space where extremist ideologies can be spread unchallenged.
But then events took a different turn in May of this year when the NCTL case against the senior teachers collapsed. This was because it was found that documents relevant to the defence had been deliberately withheld from disclosure.
Commentators close to the government were quick to respond. A special adviser at the Department for Education at the time of the Trojan Horse affair, Jaime Martin, wrote:
It is important to note as they were not tried for the charges, they were therefore not cleared of them.
People who downplay the seriousness of Trojan Horse, claiming those involved exhibited ‘mainstream’ Islamic views, are guilty not only of stunning naivety, but of a dangerous error.
Non-disclosure of anonymous witness statements from the inquiry was described as an ‘abuse of process’, and that is deeply unfortunate, but this falls short of an exoneration.
Recently, Nick Timothy former adviser to the prime minister, wrote in the Telegraph to condemn a public meeting in Birmingham, which was called to discuss the Trojan Horse affair. Timothy said the Telegraph had managed to get the owners of the venue to cancel the event after suggestions that those involved were part of a new “plot” to deny the Trojan horse scandal. This is despite the fact that the case collapsed earlier this year.
In fact, the event was an opportunity to discuss the lasting impact the Trojan Horse allegations have had on the community in Birmingham. And speakers at the event included myself and one other academic, Shamin Miah, as well as the journalist Peter Oborne, and a barrister in the case, Andrew Faux. We were also to be joined by the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Kevin Courtney, local politician, Salma Yacoob and Tahir Alam, the former chair of governors at Park View Educational Trust – the academy governing body of the school at the centre of the allegations.
Park View academy had been a failing school in 1996, but it had turned things around and was in the top 14% of all schools in the country for its GCSE results in 2012. This was despite 73% of its pupils being on free school meals – an indicator of social deprivation – and just 8% of pupils with English as a first language.
The school had been designated as a “National Support School” to share its expertise, a lot of which was put down to having religious values in the classroom that reflected the home lives of students – this is a part of Birmingham where almost 80% of residents are Muslim.
Park View’s successor school, Rockwood Academy, now has below average academic success. So even though it is well known that academic achievement is one of the best means of securing social integration, suspicion of Islamic expression within schools has had the opposite effect.
All of which has been done in the name of “British values”. But given that the most recent census shows the UK has become more ethnically diverse than ever before – minority ethnic groups continue to rise, while the proportion of people who identify as white decreases – maybe it’s time to consider what these “British values” really mean in terms of religious education.