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Trojan Horse: Snap school inspections will not solve wider governance issues

Nansen Primary School, run by the Park View Educational Trust, has been put into special measures. Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The long-awaited inspection reports on 21 schools in Birmingham accused of involvement in the “Trojan Horse” affair over alleged Islamic extremism, were released on June 9 to a hungry media. The affair, which is far from over, has raised myriad questions around both the way our current education system is governed and its place in our wider society.

The reports by schools inspectorate Ofsted reveal that out of the 21 schools investigated, five are to be placed in special measures – the lowest Ofsted grade. A further nine schools have been re-categorised to “requires improvement”.

The inspections were carried out with only 30 minutes notice in contrast to earlier inspections carried out with 24 hours advance warning. At the same time, the Education Funding Agency, the government body which distributes public money to schools, published the results of its own investigations into two academy trusts in Birmingham, Park View Educational Trust and Oldknow Academy Trust. These revealed a number of breaches of both the funding agreements and of the Independent School Standards.

Policing the crisis

Leaks of official documents have given rise to non-stop media coverage and community unrest. There have also been allegations by a number of influential critics indicating that Ofsted inspections were politically partial.

Media tropes and language used in coverage of the affair and a high-profile row over how to tackle extremism in schools between education secretary Michael Gove and home secretary Theresa May have muddied the waters. It is difficult for the public to understand whether this is an educational matter or an issue linked to national security and counter-terrorist activities.

Use of terms such as “plot”, “war” “curb”, and “dawn raid” combine to frame the investigation in terms used for criminal activity. It is an approach reminiscent of Stuart Hall’s seminal study of the ways that media coverage of mugging in the 1970s resulted in dramatic changes in legislation and sentencing.

With less than a year to go until the 2015 general election, the affair has provided powerful political leverage to parties on all sides. Politicans have been eager to apportion blame and use the affair as a springboard for their forthcoming election manifestos.

A growing concern

Concerns over the ways in which new school autonomies would affect faith have been at the forefront of education debates for some time. Documents such as the government’s 2011 Prevent Strategy set out new policies on extremism awareness strategies both in school and out of hours.

Newly updated guidance from the government published in April 2014 sets out how schools and governors should keep children safe in education. It very specifically states that governing bodies and proprietors should consider how children can be taught about issues such as forced marriage, drugs and radicalisation through teaching and learning opportunities. It also specifies the criteria under which this area will be explored in inspection.

In turn, school inspectors are asked to consider: “the extent to which pupils are able to understand, respond to and calculate risk effectively, for example risks associated with extremism”.

At Golden Hillock School, one of those schools placed in special measures, this was articulated in its Ofsted report as the lack of leader and governor action to mitigate against cultural isolation, and the risks associated with this – including risks of radicalisation. It was also outlined in terms of lack of engagement with the Prevent programme by teachers.

Back to the drawing board?

There are two broad conditions for schools put into special measures: that “the people responsible for leading, managing or governing are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement” and that “the school is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education”.

In his advice to the department of education, Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw recommends that there should be much greater clarity for all schools over what should be taught in a “broad and balanced curriculum”. But at the moment, just how this is understood by the 4,095 academies and 175 free schools in England is far from clear.

In addition, the autonomies offered to academies place a great emphasis on school governors and heads to monitor the curriculum. But research into not-for-profit boards has recognised that it is non-financial monitoring of performance that poses the biggest challenge for governing bodies. This is the monitoring of the activities of a particular organisation rather than just its financial performance. It is more difficult for governors to monitor this because of the thin line betweeen monitoring and interference in operational activities.

In previous articles for this column I have emphasised the challenges posed by new governance structures, freedom from local authority control and support, combined with a huge rise in the number of academies and free schools. These are creating substantial challenges in terms of both inspection and governance how schools are inspected and governed.

In his advice to Gove, Wilshaw specifically mentions under point E that governing bodies in many of the schools that were inspected have experienced rapid turnover in governors and staff. He says that this high level of “churn” has “left schools vulnerable to influence by unsuitable governors”.

The EFA report into Park View Educational Trust specifically criticises the confusion around both governing structures and governing practices. At Nansen Primary School, run by the trust, it reports that: “Parent governors we spoke to were confused by the governance structure and post.” These deep underlying issues cannot be resolved by Ofsted inspections alone.

Yet the government seems to be convinced that inspection is the answer, with proposals of snap, no-notice inspections which smack of a knee-jerk reaction. With next to no lead-in time, there is even less chance of inspectors being able to contact school governors during the visit, and could lead to even more distance between governors and the inspectorate.

But while the Trojan Horse affair has opened what many perceive to be a can of worms, it has revealed the true extent of the lack of cohesion and deeply perturbing issues pertaining to both the structure, content and accountability of our system of education; not to mention the political syllogism that underpins so many so-called educational reforms. The question is, now these issues are out in the open what exactly are we as a society going to do about them?

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