Parents fearful as Birmingham schools face punitive Ofsted measures following May-Gove clash over alleged extremism.
As Theresa May and Michael Gove battled it out in Westminster over their response to alleged extremism in schools, a group of parents gathered in a mosque meeting room in Moseley had more pressing, practical concerns: their children’s education.
Governors and parents had met to discuss their concerns and how they might cope with the aftermath of the “Trojan horse” investigations that will, in all likelihood, dramatically alter how their local schools are managed and run.
They fear that, once the politicians have had their way, and the news agenda has moved on, they will be left to pick up the pieces.
“I’m worried about what will happen, especially about the impact on teachers. The school will have trouble retaining teachers now. Why should my children suffer because of this?” said Amena, who has children at Oldknow primary school in Small Heath, central Birmingham.
Oldknow is one of the five schools in Birmingham likely to suffer punitive measures from Ofsted following its investigations sparked by the emergence of the Trojan horse letter, an anonymous document that purported to describe attempts by Islamic extremists to take control of state schools. The watchdog is now examining 21 schools.
Oldknow, which had previously been rated as outstanding, is expected to be downgraded to “inadequate” and placed in special measures. Its governors are likely to be replaced and the school’s management handed to another body.
“I have been appalled at what’s happened over the last two months, I feel very sad. There has been no support for the parents,” said another mother with children at Oldknow.
A third woman, formerly a governor at the school, said: “Before we came to Oldknow the school was failing. We worked very hard to make the school what it is now.”
At an earlier protest meeting at Oldknow 130 parents turned up and proudly displayed a freshly printed T-shirt, with the slogan “Hands off our school” and large red handprint.
“One of the positive things is that parents are getting to know each other,” said Amena. “But the negative thing is that children get stopped in the road by media asking them questions without their parents present.”
That day Sky News, Al Jazeera and the BBC were filming outside the school, the meeting was told.
“The timing of this is terrible. This came just before Sats, just before GCSEs,” said another parent.
The group discussed reports that Ofsted inspectors were using safeguarding issues and tests of “life in modern Britain” to fail the schools, several of which had excellent academic results. “What have we done that leads our children towards terrorism? What have we done?” one mother asked.
Andy Howell, a former councillor who was the city’s head of education in the 1990s, said the trouble was that the council had lost its capacity to govern the schools.
“In the good old days of the local authority, it provided the framework. And that’s not true any more – a direct result of government cuts. The real test is how on earth do we put the system back together? I can’t see how you do it at the moment,” he said.
Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP who represents Perry Barr in Birmingham, is adamant that the Trojan horse letter – while “sexed up at the edges” – represented a very real threat.
Mahmood faults Ofsted for not being able to deal with the sudden increase in religious schools that the growth of academies and free schools had permitted, a problem not just in Birmingham.
“There is a real issue nationally in the number of Muslim schools opening up. How can [Ofsted] understand what’s going on, what they are doing? They need to be able to look inside Jewish schools and Catholic schools as well. It’s easy to blame Muslim schools in that respect. However what we need is a national plan. Until we do that we can’t deal with the situation.”
In Mahmood’s account of the Trojan horse affair, a clique of activists with a religious agenda had slowly dominated governing bodies and, in some cases, made life so unpleasant for incumbent headteachers that they accepted pay-outs to leave.
“The parents have been left in no-man’s land. Not only have they been let down by the local authority, but the Department for Education and Ofsted have let them down,” Mahmood said.
He claimed that Ofsted was not fit for purpose because it had failed to spot what was going on. “With the Ofsted inspections, the whole thing has been a complete sham. Sir Michael Wilshaw [Oftsed chief inspector], I have no respect for him. What has he done to improve these children’s education? Why did he give good and outstanding ratings to these schools?”