Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Will The Real Trojans Please Stand Up!

9 Jun 2014

As the controversy about certain Birmingham schools continues to rage, along with the spat in cabinet which is in danger of diverting attention from the deeper issues, it is worth asking ourselves, ‘Who are the real Trojans?’ This question was brought to the fore as I watched an interview with local priest Revered Oliver Coss – a governor of one of the schools – on the day that the OFSTED reports were made public. Rev’d Coss appeared to be arguing that the matter should be resolved locally by those aware of and trying to respond appropriately to local constituencies and issues. Further he suggested that equating Islam with extremism and terrorism is dangerous, inaccurate and damaging to relationships within and between communities. Without commenting further on the Birmingham issue, except to say that I find those comments above convincing and legitimate, there is a much wider debate here about control, independence and power within the Academies and Free School movement now sweeping through our education system.

I comment as a trustee of a Diocesan Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) in the Diocese of Oxford set up three years ago to establish an umbrella body for church schools in the Diocese who are not big enough to become stand-alone academies, or who wish to join a larger organisation. What is effectively the founding document of all such trusts is the Scheme of Delegation. As the name suggests, this is the document which sets out the relative responsibilities of the local schools and the central trust. This is hugely important for a number of reasons. The reality is that the buck stops with the trustees on all crucial matters — they are the ones directly accountable to the Department for Education now that Local Authorities have been removed from the picture. So the questions that arise are multiple: how much power and responsibility is delegated to local level? What are the local bodies to be called given that they no longer have the same powers as former Boards of Governors? Without the term “governing” in some way in their title, (thus suggesting they are simply ciphers with no real authority), who will be prepared to give the time and effort to serve on such bodies given that it is already difficult to find such volunteers? If considerable powers are still delegated to local level where and how is the line to be drawn, let alone exercised in practice?

As a matter of principle, and because we believe that local autonomy and responsibility are something we should foster in church schools as we value local community involvement, this particular Diocesan MAT has decided to leave Local Governing Boards with a fair degree of freedom. However, every time it comes to discussing and putting in place such policies as discipline, grievance, capability and anything related to performance of the school and its staff, the tension between the local and the Trust comes back to the fore. If the school begins to fail in any way, it is not the local board who are accountable but the trustees. How much can trustees therefore, afford to trust the local delegates and what powers need to be reserved in order to be able to take control if and when things go wrong?

At the end of the day it is the trustees who will be called to account by Michael Gove – a reassuring thought – not the local governing body or whatever they are called. Therefore whilst the Academy and Free Schools movement is presented as a means to granting and gaining more local control and autonomy for schools, it is in fact a smokescreen for the constant threat of central government intervention. This is surely exactly what is becoming evident in the Birmingham example. In which case, who are the real Trojans here, slipping into the local apparently unnoticed, always at the ready to exercise their true power as and when they see something they find threatening or politically unacceptable? Clearly the Trojans are central government and the Department for Education, themselves running scared of being held to account for any supposed failings further down the system.

The real issue therefore is that of appropriate governance and of the balance of powers between local communities and central authorities now that an intermediate level – itself politically unacceptable and thus to be removed – has been disbanded. Like my colleague Rev’d Coss, I would agree that more should be left to local communities who have a grasp of what is happening and can respond accordingly. But – and this is a huge “but” – this brings its own risks and fears, and one can see why those at the centre would be nervous of this. Who is to be trusted with our schools and the welfare and wellbeing of our young people? The consequence of removing the intermediate level of governance has been to highlight the lack of trust between the remaining levels.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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Greg Smith

09/06/2014 11:46

Some very good points in this blog about the reality or otherwise of localism. Central government keeps talking about the importance of local people taking control of their community lives, and even brings in laws and structures to make this possible. Yet at the same time it seems to do everything in its power to strengthen centralised control, and to weaken the power of established, democratically accountable local government, and to reduce their budgets and revenue raising powers of councils. Inevitably this is to the detriment of communities in deprived urban areas – as there is less equalisation support from higher taxes on affluent communities. This in fact was the issue for which Christian Socialist George Lansbury was willing to go to jail in the 1920s

But the Birmingham case and John’s situation with the church schools in his diocese also raise issues around the nature of “faith” schools. How far should any faith community have the freedom to educate their younger generation within their religious tradition, and how narrow a presentation should they be allowed to make? Religious liberty demands parents should be free to pass on their world view to their children, but it is more tricky to define the rights of institutional churches or other organised faith communities when these could come into conflict with rights of children to their own freedom of belief and expression. “Faith schools” whether Islamic, Roman Catholic, Church of England or independent evangelical Christian, are inevitably a contested issue, and not only because secularists don’t like them. And when Government gets involved this usually spells disaster – not least because they can’t decide or understand what “faith” is all about. Is it just about transmission of a broad faith tradition or culture, for example as in David Cameron’s Christendom view that Britain is a Christian country, or is it about the formation of human beings who hold a set of religious or moral beliefs and values, or is it about the nurturing or imparting of faith itself, the making of disciples who will inevitably live in tension with the prevailing culture or our times? With so many layers of meaning in the discourse around the word “faith” it is not surprising that public discussion around these issues is so confused and so controversial.

Chris Baker

09/06/2014 11:46

Thanks Greg for expanding the debate about the nature of faith in public life on top of John’s point about the worrying lack of accountability and democracy in the very heavy handed way this has been handled by Ofsted and central government. And of course, there is the hugely unsavoury whiff of Islamophobia hanging in the air until such time as we have a proper and impartial enquiry into what, if anything, untoward has happened in these schools. A third dimension that emerges for me from the Trojan Horse debacle is the huge extra stress now imposed on those communities facing the largest challenges of poverty and deprivation brought on by the huge reduction in welfare payments and availability of only zombie-wages employment. Trustees of community schools in these areas are being told that they are now legally responsible for the well-running of their schools. This must add huge layers of stress on already hard-pressed volunteers who are left with all these responsibilities, but with no support or training from an intermediate source. Not only is this playing first and loose with children’s education and staff and civic morale, but slips all notions of risk onto the community itself. This is a gross intrusion into what Habermas would call the lifeworld of civil society and represents the worst possible ‘double whammy’ of state/market intrusion. Free market ideology dictates that all the risks associated with its social experiments must be directly transferred onto the tax payer and/or citizen. The role of the State is then to impose swift and punitive sanctions on the tax payer and poorest citizens when, inevitably, they are adjudged to have failed to manage the complexity of producing flourishing community resources in the teeth of austerity and global/local impacts. The State is here to safeguard basic and decent standards in health and education and promote healthy and flourishing communities, not act as the chief sanctioning force against those who are failed consumers or social entrepreneurs. This whole sorry and totally unavoidable scenario which will set community relationships back for decades. It makes a totally mockery of the concept of empowered and flourishing localism.

William Temple Foundation | What is Religious Education? And Who Sets the Agenda?

09/06/2014 11:46

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