I saw Panorama this evening. It was on the subject of how the Saudi authorities, through their cultural institutions, their educational materials, their national curriculum and via their embassy here in the UK, are essentially poisoning British schoolchildren’s minds through part-time educative actions carried out after normal school hours in some cases and in hired state schools in others.
The documentary showed us official Saudi textbooks teaching young children exactly where hands and feet would need to be cut off as punishments for assorted crimes – and in accordance with traditional Islamic teachings.
A pity the programme doesn’t currently seem to be on iPlayer. You really ought to try and catch it some time. It would open your eyes to the underbelly of religious faith.
I was never entirely sure of Blair’s policy of faith schools. Choosing to learn from the good that those who profess a faith can constructively get up to in society is certainly laudable. I know, from personal experience, how many kind people believe in God and – also – how many people who believe in God are kind. Gentle is, in fact, the word that comes to mind when I think of the religious people I’ve come into contact with – quite a different word from the general tenor of all those views the Dawkins of this world would prefer to hold. In the name of religion many unhappy acts have been committed, it is true. But an intolerant expression of strongly held beliefs is not the preserve of the believer. Disbelievers exhibit their own fair share too – whether rightly judged or not.
But there was something about faith schools, from their very inception, that seemed cock-eyed, misplaced and poorly defined. On the one hand, there was this wonderfully overarching vision of Blair’s to place faith and its good works at the centre of our communities – and yet, on the other, Blair seemed to suggest that the best way forward in order to achieve this vision lay in dividing society into discrete layers of understanding.
And today’s Panorama shows us just how misconceived such a policy was, paving as it did the way for all kinds of educational bolt-ons – and freedoms to tinker – to enter our sociocultural mainstream. But – in a way – this is now the least of our worries. In the film, it was notable that on a number of separate occasions Michael Gove, one of the Coalition’s most eloquent and least coherent speakers, kept on underlining how xenophobia wouldn’t be allowed to have its place in the British education system – as Ofsted, the education inspection authority, would be encouraged to tighten up its procedures.
And, as he did so, he kept referring to the English education system!
Incoherence is Gove’s personal trademark and stock-in-trade. It was probably a slip of the tongue – or possibly an administrative exactitude. Either way, it doesn’t bode well. In times of welfare and public spending cuts, inspection processes usually go to the back of the queue. A fragmenting education system, inherited from Blair’s faith schools legacy, is a clear example of how more inspection, not less, would be needed to ensure cogency. Only more inspection is not what we’re going to get.
One of Mr Gove’s flagships is the equally misconceived “free” schools policy:
Free schools, founded by parents and teachers, are one of the government’s flagship ideas for reforming education in England. The schools will be run by private firms or charities when they start to open next year. As academies, they are state schools, but operate outside the local authority. They will be able to set their own curriculum and control their own admissions.
As we can see, the same damn fool mistake that Blair made with his faith schools policy is being repeated seven years later – here in a curiously secular manner – by the Coalition government. As the Place Group organisation, an example of partnership organisations in such movements, underlines on its website:
Place Group has been deeply involved with the Free Schools movement since its inception and continues to be instrumental in advising and supporting Proposer groups in how they approach this challenge.
We were responsible for producing one of the first applications under this policy and are currently working with Proposer groups nationwide, including a number of the first Free Schools set to open in September 2011. These groups, led by inspirational community members, have chosen Place to support them in the journey to open their schools and to make them a success in the first year and beyond.
To achieve this high level of success, we have drawn on our experience in establishing over 40 Academies and many other major education projects, to ensure that the vision of each group is turned into an economic and educational reality. We continue to liaise with the New Schools Network and DfE on the challenges our groups are facing, and have also suggested refinements to the process. This knowledge and experience means we are ideally placed to advise on the skills, time and resources needed to successfully establish and run a new school.
Place understands that no two new schools are the same and that each reflects the vision and aims of the Proposer group. Our consultants will advise and guide you to establish a school that you want, rather than one that fits a pre-defined model. From the initial application through to the successful running of the school, we can provide expertise and access to partnerships that allow your group to concentrate on ensuring the governance and community aspects of the school remain at the fore.
And as it indicates on a news item published recently, the appointment of “visionary leaders” is key to ensuring that these “free” schools function:
The recruitment of a visionary leader is crucial to any school – and arguably, this appointment takes on even more significance when the position is as Head of a new Free School.
Place Group is managing the recruitment and selection of new Headteachers for both Stour Valley Community School and Haringey Jewish Primary School – and we are delighted to announce that the first provisional offer, for Haringey, has already been made.
Commenting on these assignments, New Schools Director for Place Tom Legge said, “Place Group has always had a strong reputation on Senior Leadership appointments in Academies. The skills required to recruit top talent for Free Schools are similar but require a real appreciation of the Proposers’ vision and the profile of the movement in general, both of which we are ideally positioned to offer.
We worked very hard to ensure that high quality candidates are attracted to these key roles – and we have been delighted at the level of interest and enthusiasm for the Free Schools movement, which has parallels with the early Academy appointments we made. There is a real sense of optimism and passion for change.”
Place expects to appoint its second Head Teacher designate for a Free School before the end of November.
Surely, though, we’ve had quite enough of the sort of damage that “visionary leaders” can bring to our society. Surely we need a different approach.
For all of this seems quite wrong to me. Education systems need to bring us together, not spin us apart. Creating so many different layers of discrete practice seems to me entirely wrong, foolish and simply asking for future trouble.
We need a new way of doing education. Not monolithic but – rather – binding.
And we need it now.
Before the afternoon bell rings awful changes on the age of cultural cohesion and respect.