Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan tells Editor of The Muslim News Ahmed J Versi there was no evidence of radicalisation or extremism in Birmingham schools
Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, has watered down the findings of former national head of counter terrorism’s investigation into extremism at Birmingham schools as a “spectrum of behaviours.”
For the first time Morgan clarified that there was “no evidence of radicalisation or terrorism or violent extremism” despite five schools with mainly Muslim pupils in the city were placed in special measures following media and politicians campaign against these schools.
In an exclusive interview with The Muslim News Editor, Ahmed J Versi, she said she was not aware there would be other investigations on the scale of Birmingham and acceded that she would also consider including Islamophobia as part Key Stages 2, 3 & 4 Personal, Social, Health & Citizenship Education.
The controversial investigation into what was dubbed a Trojan Horse conspiracy began with claims led by former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, of on an organised takeover of state schools by “jihadists” before the debate moved onto “extremists” then directed against “conservative” Muslims and a now focus is on a need to promote fundamental British values.
“What Peter Clark’s report had found was that there was no evidence of radicalisation or terrorism or violent extremism in the schools in Birmingham, but there were examples, I think he called it a ‘concerted attempt’, by a small number of people, to follow a particular ideology, or an extremist ideology”, Morgan said.
The “spectrum of behaviours” by the schools were, according to Morgan, “things like anti-Western assemblies or the segregation of girls and boys for no educational reasons.” Also there were “discussions and examples of things like homophobia, which we do not accept in this country”, she added.
The teaching of creationism was a further concern. Yet, if both creationism and homophobia are taught in Muslim schools or schools with Muslim majority pupils, the schools are regarded by the Government as “extremists”. However, when they are taught in Christian and Jewish schools the label of extremism is not used. Morgan replied that other schools do not have “anti-Western assemblies and anti-Christian chanting”.
Morgan said the Government will not fund early years [children upto five years old] education schools where “creationism is taught as a fact”. However, the Education Secretary added that this shouldn’t “stop the talking about religious stories or Biblical stories of anything like that.” Rather it was when it was “taught as a scientific fact” that the public funding will be stopped.
“The point is that if you’re actually teaching only that, and you’re again closing young minds to other possibilities, particularly at a young age”, she insisted. “There are a majority of nurseries, a majority of schools, a majority of parents who absolutely want young minds to be opened and not to be closed and that’s what we are seeking to support in the promotion of fundamental British values which I think are shared by people up and down the country regardless of their religion, faith or ethnic background.”
When challenged about the sensationalist way Trojan Horse issue was handled by ministers and her predecessor, Morgan said she could not comment on actions of other before she took over the education portfolio. But she agreed that ministers and anyone involved in the community as leaders have to be “very conscious of the language we use and make sure it is appropriate, proportionate and absolutely not seen to be criticizing one particular community.”
Birmingham schools “weren’t targeted” because they were overwhelmingly Muslim, she insisted. “It was a question of following where the letter, where the intelligence, where the conversations, where the head teachers have reported that they have had issues. So it was acting on information.”
On the discredited basis upon which the knee-jerk investigations were launched, she still remained defensive of her colleague, Gove. “I think anybody would expect that if we received any kind of a letter about what is being taught in schools which could relate to some of the views and accusations that we saw in Birmingham, but it could also relate to child abuse, it could relate to children being put at risk through anything. I think we absolutely have to take anything like that seriously and check it out and that’s what happened.”
The promotion of what the Government is calling fundamental British values was also unclear especially when Ofsted reported issues about some Muslim teachers seemingly being very conservative. Democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of others’ faiths and beliefs are already part of the curriculum and the Education Secretary agreed that they were being “taught well in many citizenship classes up and down the country and also those values are running right the way through.”
But the new focus was because they were “not taught well everywhere.” As Secretary of Education her job was “to make sure that we have more good and outstanding schools in this country than we had in 2010 and when I go round and I see some excellent examples of teaching and my job is to make sure that all children have access to that good or outstanding education.”
She disagreed that when inspectors from Ofsted go to schools, especially to younger children, and challenge Muslims about their beliefs and citizenship it seems to be challenging their British loyalties in a very negative way. “I can see how it’s obviously difficult for young children but I also think that it’s very important that children are asked for their views on education and the lessons they are receiving.” It was not just Muslim children but Christian and Jewish who were being questioned, she also insisted.
One of the consequences of the purges has led to Al Hijra School, a 100 per cent Muslim pupil school, being taken over by a new board of governors [Interim Executive Board] and head teacher, none of them Muslim. Wasn’t the Government able to find even one Muslim to be on the board or head teacher from tens of thousands of Muslims in Birmingham? Morgan agreed to look into the recruitment. “Perhaps I can use your interview and perhaps, through your pages, to say to Muslim parents and others in the communities that I very much want them to come forward to be governors of schools, whether they are Muslim majority schools or non-Muslim majority schools, whether in Birmingham or right across the country.”
In seeking to reassure the Muslim community, who have previously been encouraged to become governors, she said that Birmingham was “an exception”. She was keen to stress that “we are not aware of anything else like Birmingham, in terms of the scale across the country.” It was “very important” that Muslim parents come forward. “Actually they have a huge amount to contribute.”
After initially suggesting that heads and teachers know best what should be taught in lessons appropriate for the local communities. When it was proposed that pupils should be taught about Islamophobia as part of citizenship lessons, the Education Secretary relented and agreed that the topic should be included in guidelines. “It’s a very good point and we also work with associations like the PHSE (Personal, Social, Health & Economic Education Professionals) association who will advise schools on additional things to be taught in the curriculum.”
Before he resigned, Gove said that Madrasahs would be the next target. Morgan confirmed that the Government was looking into issuing guidelines for what the Prime Minister’s Extremism Taskforce, created after murder of Lee Righby, called supplementary schools. “There has been some evidence, not just of extremist views, but also of corporal punishment, which again, we think is unacceptable and so we are looking at the best way”, though she was sure that the “vast majority” are there to open young minds.
“Supplementary schools cover a huge number of different schools and we’re very conscious of how the language we use is extremely important.” With regard to her own approach being different to her predecessor, Morgan said that she represented the Midlands constituency of Loughborough, which has a significant Muslim, Bengali population.
“I work with them extremely well, some of them are great friends, they cook great curry and I bring all of those experiences in terms of how we deal with those issues.” No blind eye should be turned to problems, “but I am very conscious of the language that we use and of the importance of good community relations.”