The author of this post works in education governance and has years of experience as a Birmingham school governor.
Issues arising from the 21 inspections and monitoring visits of Birmingham Schools in response to the Trojan Horse Allegations
The press has been full of allegations of extremism in a group of Birmingham schools. This has distracted from the real issues in five Birmingham schools, of failures of governance - which include one school paying for governors to go to Saudi Arabia and one head teacher’s brother being appointed to a management position in another school which he was not qualified for. However the reports do not highlight extremism in the schools. Ultimately responsibility lies with Mr Gove and his failures of policy and leadership for allowing this to happen.
The evidence points to very serious failures of governance and the introduction of a conservative Islam which is not representative of the local community, Muslim or otherwise. These schools are now in special measures so the most important question is how were they allowed to get into this position and what needs to be done to prevent similar problems arising elsewhere.
There are a range of issues which emerge from the 21 Ofsted documents and the EFA report on the Park View Trust. The first is that although there were very serious issues highlighted in five of the schools there are also implications for the 16 schools which were not graded inadequate. These 16 schools have been drawn into this controversy and in many cases it is difficult to see why. In 11 of the 16 cases the leadership and management has now been judged on an Ofsted monitoring visit to require improvement (RI), primarily because they have not engaged in the Prevent Strategy. This includes a nursery school.
Other recent Ofsted reports in the same area make no reference to engaging in the Protect Strategy as a requirement. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the requirement to engage with the strategy is political rather than educational. In some of the 11 schools now graded RI for leadership and management there is a reference to the need to training staff in looking for signs of forced marriage or FGM. Both of these are serious issues but again there is no reference to them in other recently inspected schools serving similar communities.
Ofsted has a problem because it did not spot serious problems in the governance of the five schools now grade inadequate. The recent reports claim that the problem have arisen since the previous inspections, however, it is clear from Tim Boyes, head teacher of Queensbridge School’s evidence to Lord Hill, Education Minister in 2010, that the concerns about governance and practices in some of these schools existed. It is clear that they need to look at their practices and train their staff to judge governance just as they judge other areas of school life. Assessment of governance is generally based on a one hour meeting. The Ofsted view is that if the school is outstanding then the governance will be outstanding, if the school is good then the governance will be good. If the school requires improvement then the governance will require improvement etc. However those within the education community know this is not always the case. An outstanding school may be outstanding despite a weak governing body. The danger then comes with the lack of sustainability. If what is often a strong head and senior management team leave then a weak governing body may then be exposed and a school goes into decline.
The scale of the problem in Birmingham stems directly from Mr Gove and the policies he led at DfE. There are several messages for Mr Gove from this sad tale of where central government has failed children and their families. Firstly there is a failure of leadership. Mr Gove made it very clear that he wanted to cut the size his department drastically and equally clear that there were only two priorities in DfE: these were the establishment of free schools and academies.
In 2010 Tim Boyes, head teacher of Queensbridge School in Birmingham, met Lord Hill, Education Minister and DfE officials. He explained to them that he and neighbouring heads were worried about what was happening in certain inner city Birmingham schools. His concerns have been highlighted by the BBC and then distorted in various newspapers. He expressed concern about conservative Muslims gaining disproportionate power in Park View School and Golden Hillock School being under heavy pressure. In the last few months Mr Gove has been very concerned about the suggestion of a conservative Muslim takeover of schools so the question has to be: why wasn’t it taken further in 2010 when many of the problems could have been nipped in the bud?
The reason comes down to what can only be described as bad leadership at the top of DfE. In a situation where the Secretary of State is so clear that the only way forward is academisation and when many civil servants were losing their jobs why would you highlight a major failing in a school which was one of the first to convert to an academy? This was not going to be what the ministers wanted to hear so it wouldn’t be what senior civil servants wanted to hear. In a position where individuals feel vulnerable about keeping their jobs and where the ideological approach is so clear how many people would stick their heads above the parapet and say “ I have just learnt about a major problem with the lack of external scrutiny that comes with academisation”. The atmosphere in DfE was not one which encouraged this kind of bravery. Think of the tweets and blogs being sent out by Mr Gove’s SPADs and the identification of those who opposed academisation as “the blob”. It would take a brave or rash civil servant to take this one much further! Civil servants are not trained to be brave or rash which becomes a significant problem when faced with a minister with such a strong ideological approach.
Of course the key problem is the academy programme and the freedoms given to schools which can be abused by governors. Although Ofsted went into 13 LEA schools in Birmingham only one was in serious difficulties, Saltley School. Academisation has had an effect on all state schools. In academies there is a serious lack of scrutiny. In academies there is no constant external scrutiny. Ofsted will scrutinise, but as highlighted above they do not focus on governance, and they may not come in for five or six years to a school previously judged to be outstanding. The Education Funding Agency does not have sufficient staff. Tim Brighouse highlighted in The Guardian that the Secretary State himself may send two civil servants to a governing body meeting but even when the DfE was fully staffed they would not have been sent to academy governing bodies. Now they don’t have the staff to visit governing bodies around the country.
Some large multi-academy trusts do have a development and support team but these are very varied in quality and in a trust like Park View which only has three schools they do not have the expertise, and as can been seen in the Ofsted and EFA reports, their problems existed in all three trust schools.
Before academies in most LEAs had strong improvement teams who kept their ears and eyes to the ground and watched for areas of concern. Parents knew who to go to if they had concerns which were not being dealt with by the head teacher or the governing body. They could approach their local councillor, as I once did about concerns about my children’s primary school. Advisors would go into schools on a regular basis and get a feel for the school. It wasn’t perfect and not every advisor was outstanding but in general it worked.
No replacement has been set up by the DfE despite various academy failures even before this. Furthermore the result of the conversion of around 50% of secondary schools and 11% of primary schools to academy status, tempted by additional funding and freedoms, is that maintained schools do not have this scrutiny and support either. As each academy that converts becomes independent of their LEA and gains control of a disproportionate amount of funding which had gone to the LEA. As a result schools like Saltley in Birmingham, one of the schools in now graded inadequate, has little support from Birmingham LEA, as LEA staff and the broad range of services they used to provide, have been cut.
Discussion around practices at the five schools expose the strange situation we have in the UK around religion and schools. A faith school can teach about their own faith and no other if they choose to do so. We see this in religious schools across the country whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh or Hindu. All maintained schools including academies are legally obliged to have a daily act of collective worship of a mainly Christian character, unless they have a determination which allows them to have a daily act of worship which is not Christian. In reality few schools actually have a daily act of worship of any kind. Finally, there are a significant number of religious schools and academies which choose to adopt a conservative interpretation of their faith. the academy programme has enabled the teaching of conservative religious education in any faith academy or free school. It is only now that this is being raised as a concern. Because DfE do not have a framework for dealing with this issue Mr Gove and Mr Cameron are inventing a new requirement, to teach “British Values”.
The events in Birmingham and the lack of timely response by DfE has exposed the dangers of academisation and the damage being done to other schools because of the collapse of local education authorities. Education is vital to us all for our families and for our communities. This is not an area for experiments and a lack of scrutiny. Our children deserve better, Mr Gove needs to stop playing politics with our education system. Ofsted needs to take governance in schools seriously not assume that the governance grade follows the overall grade and indeed the grade for the paid leaders. All schools need a combination of support and scrutiny on an ongoing basis through an LEA which has democratic accountability through elected councillors. Finally, Mr Gove needs to learn leadership skills so that his civil servants can tell him all the news not just the news that supports academies.
CORRECTION: The article originally said Tim Boyes met with schools minister Lord Nash. This was a typo. It should have been Lord Hill. This has been corrected. Thanks to Barry Wise for pointing out the error.
 English Martyrs' Catholic Primary School Ofsted Report, Inspection dates 11–12 December 2013; Requires improvement: monitoring inspection visit to Chandos Primary School, 6th February 2014; Special measures monitoring inspection of Al-Furqan Primary School, 14th March 2014; Chilcote Primary School
Chilcote Close, 27–28 March 2014; Special measures monitoring inspection of Wyndcliffe Primary School 28th March 2014
 Tim Brighouse, The Trojan Horse Affair, The Guardian, 17th June 2014