Denis Healey tells the story. On the eve of South Yemen’s independence, its last British governor hosted a party attended by Healey, who was then minister for defence. Over drinks, as the flag was about to be lowered, the governor looked at Healey and said, “You know, Minister, I believe that in the long view of history, the British Empire will be remembered only for two things.” What, Healey wondered, were these great gifts to the world? And the governor replied, “the game of association football. And the expression ‘eff off’.”
Stories like this are a reminder, perhaps, that ‘British values’ are more complex and problematic than they appear when grabbed by politicians in a crisis. On Monday afternoon, following the OFSTED report into Birmingham schools, the Secretary of State for Education argued that all schools should be required to teach the fundamental British values of “democracy, mutual respect and tolerance”.
Just fourteen hours later, by Tuesday morning, when the Prime Minister added his voice, the list had become a little longer: “freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions”. And this is what happens: lists become longer, pet topics are added, enthusiasms are produced. In her autobiography, Mrs Thatcher famously recalled her horror that her desire in 1988 for a simple core curriculum became, by 1994, such a complex national curriculum that it needed an inquiry led by Lord Dearing to tame it.
The relationship between the school curriculum and civic understanding – which is what is at issue here – has been fraught from the very beginnings of the National Curriculum. A subject-based curriculum has many strengths, but there are aspects which fall through the cracks. The 1988 National Curriculum addressed this through a series of ‘cross-curricular themes’ (though they were taken more seriously by curriculum developers than they ever were in schools). What is everyone’s responsibility is no-one’s real responsibility. In 1989, the then Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, established a Speaker’s Commission on Citizenship. In 1993, OFSTED took a different tack, seeking to define social, moral and spiritual understanding, but covering much of the same ground. In 1997 the new Labour Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, asked his fomer university politics tutor, Bernard Crick – a lifelong advocate of political education – to report on the case for education for citizenship. The current Prime Minister and Michael Gove would do well to re-read Crick’s report.
Crick set out three aims for education for citizenship, including social and moral responsibility, requiring morally responsible behaviour both in and beyond the classroom, both towards those in authority and towards each other, community involvement, including learning through community involvement and service to the community, and political literacy, including pupils learning about and how to make themselves effective in public life through knowledge, skills and values.
Crick argued that whilst these were cross-curricular concerns, the knowledge base for citizenship required a dedicated allocation of curricular time, and Citizenship was introduced as a statutory element of the curriculum in 2002. It was abolished by the Coalition in 2010 under the banner of offering schools curriculum freedom.
In his own Newsnight interview on 9 June, the Chief Inspector of Schools, pushed by Jeremy Paxman, said that on the curriculum he personally leaned towards curriculum prescription. It is almost certain that we will now have a new round of consultation, which will throw up many of the definitional challenges involved in translating ‘British values’ into curriculum guidance, in which the list of elements of British values will grow and shrink over time and end up not a million miles away from the Crick Report.
In the most recent edition of the Curriculum Journal, my IOE colleague Michael Young, himself a key advocate of the importance of knowledge-led curricula, offers some astringent and prescient arguments on what a curriculum can, and cannot do: it can educate young people, but cannot, ultimately, reach beyond the school. The evidence of the past is quite clear. Politicians frequently overstate what the curriculum can do. They push definitions too far; they burden curricula with too many expectations.
Teachers and schools need guidance, but the guidance needs to be generic and to support professional judgement. If “democracy, mutual respect and tolerance” are the (British) values we want children to be taught, then they apply equally to the processes by which curricula are constructed. If that’s not the case, then schools and teachers are just as likely to draw on at least one of the long-lasting influences of Empire cited by the last governor of South Yemen.
The inspection report is glowing: “This is an outstanding school… Teaching is outstanding overall… The curriculum is outstanding… Students behave exceptionally well in lessons…” In 2013, 75% of all its pupils attained five GCSEs grades A*-C including English and Mathematics, placing it in the top fifth of all schools nationally. Eight in 10 of its disadvantaged pupils achieved expected progress in English – a result comfortably above national averages. More than this, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector visited the school himself and enthused that it was “doing fantastically well. Walking around the school and talking to children, they all appreciate being here. The students are so ambitious for themselves and that is so heartening”.
Just two years later the school is in special measures (PDF): attainment and the quality of teaching are now good, and the quality of leadership and management is now inadequate.
Readers may have guessed: this is Park View Academy in Birmingham, one of the 21 schools at the centre of no less than three separate probes: a co-ordinated OFSTED inspection, a city council investigation, and an investigation by a former head of the anti-terrorist branch. All stem from the charges that a well-organised ‘Trojan Horse’ conspiracy was seeking to transform Park View and other non-faith Birmingham state schools into Islamic schools.
This is a complex saga from which almost no-one involved comes out well. Despite attempts in some of the press to trail the story as a tale of failing inner city schools, inspection reports make it clear that at least several have been good or outstanding.
Despite attempts to link the story to the failings of an urban local authority, several of the schools, including Park View, are already academies: outside the control of the local authority, governed solely by funding agreements with the secretary of state. ‘Academisation’ may be a solution for struggling local authority schools, but it is a difficult policy to promote when schools have already made the switch.
And the complexities get more challenging. For a generation, governments have strenuously advanced the cause of parental influence in education. Under the current government, groups of parents who are dissatisfied with what is on offer from their local authority have had the right to self-organise to propose the establishment of ‘free schools’. But in Birmingham, it appears, some parents have self-organised in a quite different way.
And while schools’ role in community cohesion was dropped from the UK’s inspection framework, across the world schools are encouraged to build strong links and work with the grain of the community. For more than a decade schools have been encouraged to develop their own curriculum specialisms: today’s reports make it clear that in some cases curriculum autonomy has serious shortcomings.
Considerable – and understandable – concern has been raised about segregating boys and girls for assemblies and parts of the curriculum, but it is not too long since the Daily Telegraph and Guardian reported favourably on single gender classes in mixed schools, which, enthused the Telegraph, improved “self esteem… and enthusiasm”. For a century and a half, governments have tolerated or encouraged faith schools in the publicly funded education system. Catholic dioceses, for example, have argued strenuously for the right of Catholic parents and Catholic schools to exercise discretion over the teaching of aspects of science, religious education, sex education or abortion. In Birmingham, it seems, some parents took to extremes their aspirations for a faith ethos and faith practices in their local schools.
The evidence is that Park View Academy still achieves good examination results for many of its pupils despite severe deprivation. The inspected schools have not ceased to succeed for their pupils. But OFSTED also, now, find evidence of something more sinister in the targeting of schools by determined groups and individuals. The saga of the ‘Trojan Horse’ in Birmingham raises profound questions about developments which have become deeply embedded in education policy and practice::
- How should schools balance their commitment to high attainment with a mission to enhance community cohesion?
- Do curricular and pastoral practices matter if attainment is high? Politicians of all stripes have on occasion argued that the only thing that matters is results.
- To whom and how should schools be accountable? There is a powerful trend in much policy debate that schools are fundamentally accountable to parents. How should school leaders respond to insistent demands from well-organised and articulate parent groups wherever they come from?
- We expect schools to co-operate one with another – but should schools be required to co-operate with other schools from different faith traditions? Politicians of all persuasions have trumpeted the benefits of schools making their own decisions.
- In an academised school system, in which schools are autonomous, who should monitor the practices – not simply the performance – of schools?
There are no easy answers to these questions. All the evidence is that managing urban school systems demands exceptional skills locally. Gifted local leadership, as David Woods, Chris Brown and I showed in our study of education transformation in Tower Hamlets, can make a real difference to outcomes, but it demands sophisticated skills and strategic planning.
What Birmingham schools now need is not the media blitz which is accompanying the publication of high profile reports, but something quite different: a determined and long-term focus on linking high performance with community development, commitment to working through local tensions and developing confidence and trust amongst all those involved. They need the heat taken out of the situation. Urban schools, as anyone who has taught in or worked with them know, always face difficult challenges. Addressing those challenges requires resilient and professional support.
Local interim executive boards; partnerships between schools, local and national authorities working to engage community groups; trust and effective leadership all need to be built to develop a consensus on what the schools – publicly funded and secular institutions – need in order to deliver high standards and win parental and community support. Among the last things Birmingham schools need right now are press headlines.