Jacqueline Baxter, Open University
After months of speculation, media hype and political posturing, Ofsted finally released its reports into the 21 schools it investigated following allegations of a plot by hard line Muslims in Birmingham to impose extremist views on school children. The so called Trojan Horse affair, which is far from running its course, has raised some serious questions not only about how we govern education in England but equally how the media have influenced, mediated and, to a large extent, acted as controlling influence on the whole affair. Accompanied by what some have termed the worst media headlines for the City of Birmingham since the Handsworth riots some 30 years ago, the affair continues to gain momentum with potentially a long hot summer of discontent on the horizon.
Ofsted – an agency under pressure
The Ofsted reports, accompanied by documents by the Education Funding Agency, were highly critical of a number of the schools involved: out of the 21 schools investigated, five have been placed in special measures – the lowest Ofsted grade, with a further nine schools re-categorised to “requires improvement”. The reports have been greeted with outrage by many living in the communities served by the schools – communities with high levels of ethnic minority concentration and socio economic deprivation. Park View School, one of the schools at the centre of the controversy has 94% Muslim students. It was the centre of intense media focus back in 2012 when it was judged to be outstanding following an inspection using the declaredly tougher new inspection framework. The school was feted and its head teacher lionised when Sir Michael Wilshaw- Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector- made a personal visit to the school and declared that, ‘Park View is doing fantastically well. Walking around the school and talking to the children, they all appreciate being here. The students are so ambitious for themselves and that is so heartening and enforces my view that schools make a difference.’
Since the reports were released the media attention has continued unabated, gaining even more momentum following declarations by David Cameron and Michael Gove that schools and governors must abide and be steered by strict adherence to British Values. An announcement which has provoked intense debate in the media as to what exactly is meant by British values.
The Parents’ friend?
Ofsted, although no stranger to controversy and media attention, has never in its 20 year history had to deal with anything resembling the Trojan Horse Affair. Established in 1992 and set up by John Major’s conservative government, it was a key element in the drive to improve transparency in the public services and to provide parents with more information about schools– to shine a light into the secret garden of education and reveal what lay within. Ending the so called ‘producer’ dominance which the government felt had characterised education for so long, and make this, along with other public services, more responsive to the needs of the public they purported to serve.
Since then the agency has rarely been out of the press. A succession of high profile Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectors, (HMCI) have ensured that the agency maintains a high profile in the world of education. Its reach and renowned are now so powerful that a number of researchers argue that that Ofsted’s political and educational centrality has altered its function from one of education policy influencer to an education policy shaper.
As the teaching unions are increasingly portrayed as poor representatives of the profession, Ofsted with its unerring ability to transcend the electoral cycle has become a defining authority on what constitutes good education in England and continues to justify its vast budget-143 million at the last count- by its increasing proximity to government in spite of its oft repeated mantra, ‘We inspect without fear or favour.’
Although Ofsted has always been at pains to emphasise its political impartiality, this struggle has intensified since the Coalition Government came to power in 2010. The high profile appointment of Michael Wilshaw by Michael Gove was epitomised by The Times who, by means of a detailed personal analysis of the new HMCI, has often portrayed the battle for England’s schools as part of a personal crusade by Wilshaw. In a fashion not unlike Vogler’s classic plot architecture the Chief inspector’s current role is framed as a natural extension of his battle to transform a tough inner city school-Mossbourne Academy- into living proof that disadvantage is no barrier to attainment in a successful school.
But the largely positive press coverage that accompanied his initial appointment and first year in office has gradually dissipated as the work of Ofsted has become increasingly aligned with the execution of Gove’s academies project. This extended a project beginning under New Labour and offers schools financial and curricular independence along with freedom from Local Authority Control. Gove’s extension of the academies project to all schools looks to create a fully marketised system in which only the strongest survive and is largely predicated on the notion that market forces alone will drive up standards in education and eradicate the inequities have dogged the English system for so long. Many schools have opted for academy status, tempted in part by the financial incentives that form part of the new deal. Weaker schools- those which Ofsted deems to be failing or requiring improvement-are increasingly co-opted to academy status and are taken over either by better performing schools or academy chains.
Ofsted – independent player or political pawn?
Because these take overs have in many cases followed poor inspection judgements it has meant that in a substantial amount of cases, inspections have been linked to what have been seen as forced academisation of schools – schools whose governors and staff have fought high profile media campaigns to retain their independence. Accusations of Ofsted’s increasing proximity to political agendas reached their zenith recently with a high profile spat between Gove and Wilshaw in which Wilshaw stridently defended the agency following accusations that Ofsted was no more than a political pawn.
But the Trojan Horse affair, and the high profile media campaign which preceded it, has placed Ofsted in an invidious position. The process that has declared as failing schools that were previously rated outstanding has raised questions not only in terms of the methodology by which judgements were reached, but perhaps more influentially, they have created a discourse of anti-Muslimism around the agency which will be very difficult to shift. The recent declarations by Gove on the future policing of British Values implies that Ofsted will be central in judging not only what these values actually are, but equally whether they are present or not within schools. This will leave Ofsted with a very tricky course to steer in terms of its politically impartial stance. There is already a cacophony of dissent on the internet from both governors and parents wondering who these so called British values will be designed to include and exclude from school governance, and to what extent this will represent another type of Trojan Horse- this time filled with the type of British Values which may be equally as destructive as the hard-line Muslim versions. In addition to this, the letter which sparked the inquiry is now believed to have been a hoax leading a number of papers, including the Financial Times, to brand the government’s handling of the whole affair as a fiasco.
But while politicians continue to debate and the media continue to speculate, the people of Alum Rock are preparing for what they see as a long battle for justice, with two of the schools involved already seeking legal action against the Ofsted judgements. Meanwhile back in Westminster the government steel themselves to prepare for a long hot media fuelled summer of discontent with West Midlands police, Birmingham city council and the Department for Education, holding holding several “gold command” meetings and a “cell” of police officers set up to monitor social media for signs of protest and any signs of right wing activism in the wake of the affair.
Who crafted the Horse?
Created by a hoax document and crafted by political sound bites, leaked reports, government arguments and media speculation the Trojan Horse Affair has created so much noise that the individuals responsible for bringing the affair to light and carefully orchestrating it have in the meantime faded into the background of public consciousness as the affair takes on international significance as it mixes with discourse of extremism, Britishness and public outcry.
However history remembers it, the plot – hoax or not – has revealed some deeply disturbing insights into the ways in which current so called ‘school freedoms’ are operating. These are issues that will in the longer term need to be addressed in a far more cohesive way than government current approaches. But , if anything. the affair should also be remembered as a perfect example of the way in which the careful crafting of a crisis and skilful manipulation of the media is capable of inflicting untold damage on communities, the inspectorate and the current system of education that will, in the longer term, take far more than a government sound bite to fix.
Jacqueline Baxter is a Lecturer in Social Policy and Director of the BA Hons in Social Policy and Criminology. Her research interests lie in the field of the politics of educational policy and the media; school inspection and school governance. Her blog can be found at :www.jacquelinebaxter.net and her education column Ruling the School: Power, Policy and Politics in Education @https://theconversation.com/columns/jacqueline-baxter-124061. You can follow her on twitter @drjacquebaxter