Saturday, 26 July 2014

Of Trojan Horses and loose cannons

I have finally read Peter Clarke's report into the so-called Trojan Horse allegations about Birmingham schools. I have to say that I have been left holding two conflicting views about the issue but I think there is a central point here that has so far been ignored in the discussion of the incidents.

My first reaction to this whole affair was that it formed a part of the current government's ant-UKIP-backlash-backlash attempt to appease the more rightwing and islamophobic elements of its own party and of the electorate as a whole. It also felt to me like a skirmish in the internecine war between Michael Gove and Theresa May that led eventually to Gove's demotion: Gove's spin-doctors using it to brief against May for failing to tackle Islamic extremism in society and May seizing on it to to blame Gove for inadequate supervision of schools.

 The image of the Trojan horse may not have been invented by Micahel Gove or Theresa May (it came from the original anonymous document that sparked all the furore) but it is a telling one. The original Trojan horse was a means by which armed soldiers were smuggled into the heart of the city which they then attacked and destroyed from within. This seems very much the fear of a proportion of the more narrow-minded and islamophobic rightwingers who live amongst us and whose extremist views are rarely challenged. In fact the report carries no implication of jihadist radicalisation of students in these schools.

The closest I could find to evidence for anything similar was an account of a visit to a Year 10/11 assembly by a preacher called Shaykh Shady Al-Suleiman. There is no indication of any specifics of what this assembly contained, but this passage of commentary is included to show how "extremist" it was: "Some students made comments to staff along the lines of ‘Oh my God I can’t believe what he has just said - there are people dying in Afghanistan’ and talked about it for days afterwards. Some students wondered why he had been talking about them being oppressed in this country." Hardly sounds to me like a jihadist call to arms. As this is the only evidence I could find of attempted radicalisation of students within these schools it is hard to justify the widespread use of the term "Trojan Horse" to describe what went on.

Much has been made of the promotion of a conservative form of Islam within these schools, and of this there is more evidence. However it is not clear to me the extent to which the schools involved were creating or simply responding to a pervasive climate of religious conservatism, given that the very large majority of the students were from religiously conservative households. Much is made for instance of an incident when a group of girls who had been sent out to a tennis coaching programme were then sent home when they realised that some of the tennis coaches were men, and the teacher responsible for arranging the trip was forced to write a letter of apology.

As someone who has worked for many years in schools with students from socially conservative households (by no means exclusively muslim) it is clear to me that the teacher involved did make a serious error in not checking whether the coaches would all be female. As liberal-minded Europeans we may not like it but the fact is that an awful lot of families living in this country would object strongly to their daughters being placed in close physical proximity with an unknown adult male, particularly whilst skimpily dressed in PE kit.

In another issue, the report has been used to suggest that Birmingham Council were remiss in not responding to and following up the allegations contained in the "Trojan Horse" letter. The implication is that Birmingham knew what was going on but were too concerned with political correctness to do anything about it. The report seeks to provide evidence for this view by suggesting that Birmingham knew before they even got the letter that something was amiss. However the only piece of direct evidence I could find is extraordinary- a passage from an internal email that mentions"growing concerns amongst head teachers that some governing bodies of schools with large numbers of pupils from an Islamic background, or at least groups of influential governors within governing bodies, were putting unreasonable pressure on head teachers to raise standards and/or address other issues of concern." According to this, the much-feared Trojan horse was a means of raising standards and addressing other areas of concern! Hardly a plot to massacre the city.

In fact, reading between the lines, it is pretty clear that officers in Birmingham council suspected the letter to have been written and circulated by a head teacher as part of their battle against their own governing body, which the head felt was submitting him/her to undue pressure. This implication is very clear in an analysis of the letter produced by Birmingham in 2013: "The document seeks to imply that there is manipulation of local authority officers to deliver an overall plan. Very few of the facts are accurate. The document reflects the views of some head teachers, who have expressed their concerns to a number of elected members, local authority officers and governors" (italics mine).

So there is certainly an element of this whole saga that is feeding off the islamophobic paranoia of little-Englander UKIPers to emphasise the need for a firm hand against these weird veiled fifth-columnists with their silafi this and their jihadi that. Ironically, much of what is alleged to have been promoted within the schools investigated would be far more distasteful to the liberal Guardian readers amongst us than to said UKIPers: homophobia; strict codes of dress and comportment; the elimination of any pre-sexual contact between male and female students; and religious conservatism.

And yet.

As an ex-headteacher who was, in effect, "hounded out of office" myself there is a great deal in this reports that rings true to me on another issue entirely. The report blandly states that "I have seen no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with governance generally," yet it really is not clear how the author could possibly be in a position to make a judgment about governance generally.

In fact, what the report highlights is precisely that issue- the problem with governance generally, in schools up and down the land and the new academies and free schools in particular. Those with no direct experience of governing bodies may be surprised at just how antiquated and amateurish the system of school governance is. It was developed in an era when schools had little autonomy, being under the direct control of local education authorities. So governors were there to be "critical friends" and give the head teacher some perspective on the views of parents and the wider community as to what was going on in the school. In the most enlightened schools they played this role effectively, but the whispered truth was that actually governors really didn't matter.

And this was just as well in a way, because there have always been major potential problems with the entire system. In theory governing bodies have a constitution and their functioning is bound up in a range of regulations, guidance and even legislation. Yet in fact, far too often, they end up being a group of more (or less) well meaning amateurs, with little understanding of educational issues and sometimes very odd personal agendas who meet for a couple of hours late into the evening every month or so to engage in futile and repetitive debates about uniform and behaviour.

A proportion of all school governors must be elected parent governors, and on the face of it this guarantees effective representation from the parent body. In fact, in every school in which I have been involved, so few parents are prepared to put themselves forward as governors that anyone who does is elected unopposed. Indeed in the few instances where candidates outnumber available parent governor vacancies the unsuccessful candidates are often shunted into the governing body anyway as some other category of governor.

So rather than being elected representatives of the parent body, parent governors can often be individuals with time on their hands and a specific axe to grind, generally in regards to the treatment of their own son or daughter. I am not, of course, saying that all are, but there is effectively no mechanism in place to prevent anyone with such a self-serving agenda acceding to the governing body.

A (smaller) proportion must be staff governors. However here, as well as the unwillingness of staff to put themselves up for election (governing body meetings typically finish after 9pm, and staff will often have been in school since 7 or 8am) there is the issue of status. Staff governors are quite often mistrusted by the rest of the governing body. They will for instance routinely be excluded from the part 2 (confidential) sections of meetings, even if parent governors are allowed to remain, and their contribution to debates close to other governors' hearts (but of which they know little) such as how to manage student behaviour will often be ignored. Unsurprisingly this often gives rise to a feeling amongst staff that the position of staff governor is utterly unrewarding and pointless, unless for some reason you want it on your CV.

In theory governing body constitutions ensure internal democracy too. However in fact a forceful and politically astute governor with one or two allies can generally very easily become elected chair. It is a job that most (largely amateurishly well-meaning, often elderly) governors would not dream of standing for and many will be happy to vote for anyone who is prepared to do so. Once chair, the politically astute governor can very easily pack the governing body with allies. There are always vacancies, and I have many times witnessed a chair appointing to the governing body some crony whom no one else had any knowledge of, then getting that appointment ratified by a show of hands in which other governors were too embarrassed, or cared too little, to show any dissent.

The head of the school, who is generally an ex-officio governor, has to learn to manage the governing body with a mixture of assertiveness, smarminess, lowdown politicking of their own and regular schmoozing with the chair of governors. Generally this works, and so long as the head can bear to sit through endless hours of pointless, ill-informed commentary on just why the students in the school aren't half as well disciplined as children used to be in the old days then they can get on just fine with only minimal interference. And, to be fair, just occasionally governors actually can act as critical friends, and give the head new perspectives on issues of concern.

However should the shit start hitting the fan the head will soon discover that governing bodies, for all their amateurish incompetence, are not subject to any effective means of control. Should a parent governor for instance start conducting an overt campaign against an individual teacher, purely on the basis that their son or daughter does not like them, the head will find there is little they can do. Parent governors once elected cannot be removed, and the head has no powers whatever to address unprofessional behaviour on the part of a governor. There are internal disciplinary procedures for governing bodies, but the bodies concerned are often extremely reluctant to use them- governing bodies are a social grouping as much as anything else. And what if the governor behaving unprofessionally is the chair of governors?

All of this used to be simply an irritation, and one that courses such as NPQH taught heads to manage and/or survive. However increasing numbers of schools are being taken out of any sort of direct supervision or control from their local education authorities (because they are academies or free schools) and governors are suddenly finding that they have an extraordinary degree of unfettered and unsupervised power over everything that happens in the school. In particular they find that, should they want to, they can make the headteacher's position untenable, and there will be very little the headteacher can do about it.

One section of the report- the Slatley Story- made very uncomfortable reading for me. My position vis-a-vis my governors was not as extreme as Mr Bains but I saw a large number of parallels that brought back painful memories. The head's position (as ex-offico member) on the governing body is often a very difficult and isolated one. When things are difficult the head can find himself/herself the only representative of and apologist for what is going on in the school. As well as being the only one with any actual educational expertise they will be the only one with direct experience of life in the school on a daily basis. And should the governing body start coming to a view informed by a mixture of gossip and their own prejudices then the head's educational expertise and direct knowledge can come to be seen (perversely) as a problem rather than an asset. I have actually been told by a governor, when making a point about what makes for effective behaviour management in the classroom, "You would say that. You're a teacher!"

In addition, as the head is often the only representative of the school with whom governors come in direct regular contact, he/she can easily become a focus for any resentments about the school the governors may hold. Many people have negative views about schools, and governors are no exception. Partly this is a result of our society's negativity about its state education system, partly because of a generalised fear of the sort of loutish teenagers who typically pour out of the gates at 3.30 and throng the local bus stops. Sometimes it is also because the governor's own child is going through a difficult adolescent phase and the governor sees the school as a useful scapegoat for their own anxieties. So should things start getting difficult there will always be governors who turn against the head, at which point the head will suddenly find just how isolated their position is and how truly ungoverned the governing body can be. It is bad enough when the head has the local authority to go to for support (as that is something local authorities are not always capable of or willing to supply) but if the school is a free school or standalone academy it must be truly awful.

So whatever the degree of concern one should have about the apparent attempted back-door conversion of a few Birmingham secular schools into faith schools the real issue this report raises is the one that it dismisses in half a sentence. Because actually there is a serious problem with governance generally, and one that needs to be urgently addressed.

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