IT is nothing short of scandalous that five state schools in Birmingham have had to be placed in special measures after being infiltrated by extremists. It is shocking that it took the inspectors so long to finally identify and document the problem. The question is whether this is still happening in other parts of the country, or whether the problem is now under control. It is worth pointing out that these were not faith schools; and that the biggest losers from all of this are ordinary families and their children, who were not getting the broad education they deserved. Let us hope that the schools are fixed speedily.
State schools will now hopefully face spot inspections, rather than be told well in advance of forthcoming official visits. This makes a lot of sense: if an organisation is warned that it will be inspected, it obviously will have time to hide problems and to be on best behaviour. It is high time that the public sector were faced with the same sorts of discipline and scrutiny that private sector industries have long had to put up with. Two of the schools now rated as inadequate were previously judged to be outstanding – as U-turns go, this one takes some beating. In the long run, the real job for government in a competitive, pluralist state-funded education sector is to focus on auditing.
One other mooted remedy for the Trojan horse scandal – as the extremist takeovers have been dubbed – is that school children will be taught British values from September. The problem, of course, is that it is hard to know what exactly is meant by that – and whatever the current government might think could easily be changed when the next one takes over. Trusting the establishment of the day with coming up with a sensible definition of “Britishness” is always risky. In any case, the whole problem with the Trojan horse schools is that they deliberately ignored some of the rules – so changing them isn’t the issue, it is enforcement that was lacking.
Many will argue that this crisis shows that councils need to regain direct controls of schools and that autonomous academies and free schools are a bad idea. That is nonsense – failure exists in all systems, but it is worse in the traditional world of local education authorities. The dead hand of monopolistic councils has had disastrous consequences for the education of children over the past few decades.
There is rightly a huge row about the five schools – many of them academies – that were found to be so disastrously wanting yesterday – but what this misses is that 73 local authority schools have gone into special measures since the start of the year. Two state schools are taken over in this way every single school day – a remarkable public sector failure which doesn’t attract anything like enough attention.
No fewer than 35 local authority schools have remained in special measures for 18 months or more, which is far too long and suggests gross institutional incompetence. To add insult to injury, the Audit Commission said last year that they had spotted at least 191 cases of fraud in local authority schools across the country. The real figure is likely to be far higher. The problem, as ever, is that there isn’t enough scrutiny of the public sector.
There are problems, errors and blunders in every kind of school, public, private, council controlled or autonomous, just as excellence exists in all systems. But competition, diversity and pluralism, combined with parental choice and a reformed, empowered system of external auditing is the way forward. It is the set-up that maximises chances of success and that makes sure that failure, when it inevitably happens, is spotted quickly and acted upon.
The immediate reform that is required is to allow spot checks, and to shake-up the inspections system. That, rather than vague commitments to Britishness, is what our schools most urgently need.
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