Dark hints of a conspiracy to radicalise the nation’s schoolchildren have led to so-called ‘Trojan horse’ allegations against Park View Educational Trust in Birmingham. But the carefully executed subterfuge deployed by the Greeks against Troy is not actually an apt metaphor for the behaviour of those running the educational trust. Because if there was a conspiracy, it was one carried out in the open. After all, anyone who cared to enquire would have had little difficulty discovering that these schools were dominated by an Islamic ethos.
The findings of Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, who said that ‘a culture of fear and intimidation has taken grip’ of several Birmingham schools, five of which are now in ‘special measures’, should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the goings on at Park View Educational Trust’s academies. What is surprising is that even now the Department for Education (DfE) is unaware of its own responsibility for the mess it has created. For some time, politicians have encouraged parents to involve themselves in the running of their children’s schools. Parents and members of the community have even been urged to become school governors and to provide leadership and guidance to members of staff.
Unfortunately, parental influence over the management of schools almost always has regrettable outcomes. In theory, parents are meant to be able to hold teachers and heads to account; but in reality, they merely force educationalists on the defensive. The pressure parents exert distracts and disorients teachers. And, in the more extreme cases, the interventions of parent governors actually politicise a school’s curriculum. Take the impact of citizen-packed local school boards in the US, for example: their political influence, which is usually informed by a Christian fundamentalist agenda, often negates the educational needs of the classroom. In Birmingham, although the influence is exercised by people from a different faith, the outcome is very similar.
So, at a time when government policy celebrates the false god of parental pressure, there is no need for a Trojan horse. What happened in Birmingham is a fiasco created by policymakers who simply do not understand the importance of maintaining the independence both of schools and the institution of education more broadly. So when Wilshaw reported that ‘governors are exerting far more influence than is appropriate or acceptable’, he evades the question of why that has happened. After all, just how much pressure from governors is inappropriate? Recommending course content? Determining the cultural values that dominate the classroom? Influencing the employment of suitable staff?