As I understand the situation, part of the row in Birmingham, and now Bradford, over the targeting of several schools by those with a particular view of education, centers on the issue of the possible use of schools to radicalise young people. However, much of the public discussion appears to be around issues linked to more traditional educational debates, such as separating the genders in classrooms, and denying girls the right to some activities such as sport and physical education. Clearly, these educational points should be easily disproved or established, and dealt with.
Although academies are free to set their own curriculum under Gove’s reforms, I am not sure that barring certain groups from some activities was an intended consequence. But, it shows what can happen with freedom. There is also an issue about how governors are appointed in the new undemocratic education world. In local authority controlled schools there was generally some democratic oversight of governor appointments with ward councillors being told of vacancies, and reports to Council. There is no such obvious mechanism for what is happening in academies. However, not all the schools involved in Birmingham were academies.
The wider point of segregation on gender lines in education is more interesting as an issue. There are, after all, selective gender segregated schools in Tory controlled Kent and Buckinghamshire; in the London boroughs of Merton and Kingston; and in northern authorities such as The Wirral and Lancashire. Indeed, it is only within my lifetime that the last gender segregated junior schools in places such as Croydon were turned into co-educational schools. Many of the three-decker Victorian schools in London still have the reminders of past times with separate boys’ and girls’ entrances, inscribed in the stonework over the doors, now happily used by all. Indeed, Birmingham has had separate boys’ and girls’ selective and comprehensive schools within its education system for many years.
Personally, I prefer co-education, but there cannot be one rule for some and not for others. The DfE database record 232 state-funded schools just for girls, including selective schools run by faith groups, and slightly fewer for boys. That means up to ten per cent of secondary schools across England may be single-sex schools. There is an issue about how any group of parents or other community groups can alter the characteristics of an existing school, compared with the clear framework for submitting proposals for a new academy of some sort or other.
Up until 1997, there was an understanding that Christian and Jewish schools would be funded by the State, but not those of other religions. The Blair government changed the rules to make them more logical, with any group being able to seek to set up a school with a faith-based character funded from the public purse. However, it never really discussed what to do when communities change and there is an existing pattern of schools.
Nevertheless, the government should have been alert to the problems that can occur with the secular curriculum in schools run for particular religious purposes. The Ofsted report of an independent school in Hackney this January is evidence enough to have alerted anyone concerned by the issue. It also demonstrates that Ofsted was perfectly capable of inspecting such schools, and reporting on their education functions. Why a former police officer needed to be sent into Birmingham ahead of Ofsted, only the Secretary of State can explain, as no doubt he will do so when the various reports have appeared.
The role of religions in education has always been complicated in England because of the manner in which the State replaced the churches as the main provider of schooling. The issue was discussed before the 1902 Education Act was passed by the then Wesleyan Methodist Church. The question they discussed was: were Wesleyans teachers of children or teachers of Methodist children. They opted for the former point of view, and as a consequence there were no Methodist state funded secondary schools, but many Methodist have become teachers. Other faith groups took the contrary view, and there are such schools. Where does the modern State want to go in a multi-faith community where schooling is a key factor in the lives of young people? Birmingham may present an opportunity to decide what type of schooling system the State should fund. A debate now joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury in favour of faith schools.