British lessons with Michael Gove

With the honourable exception of the pupils who have to take their GCSEs in a climate of ill-informed hysteria, there is something for everyone in the Birmingham schools story. It is evidence of too much and too little central control. Religious schools are part of the problem and part of the solution. Responses by politicians tell us something (or nothing) about the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and Labour.

On Monday, Ofsted published details of its inspections of 21 schools in and around Birmingham. The schools inspector found five of the schools to be “inadequate”, its lowest of four possible overall ratings. Deploying various euphemisms about a lack of “safeguarding” and failures in “governance”, Ofsted alleges that it discovered evidence that pupils were being exposed to extreme Islamic views, or at the very least, that they were not being encouraged to be tolerant. In some cases it received evidence from teachers who said that incompetent school governors with radical views were playing increasingly influential roles in the running of the school.

Where diversity ends and extremism begins is a tough question, as the BBC’s Mark Easton discusses on his blog. How we deal with social conservative expressions of faith in our school system is an old issue, as Nick Pearce of IPPR writes, but it has taken on fresh meaning now that these expressions are often Islamic. Michael Gove believes that part of the answer is the teaching of “British values” in English schools.

Cue a typical British reaction of scorn, scepticism and wit. Fair enough. But mockery won’t address real cases of intolerance being spread in schools by religious zealots. There are good reasons (which have nothing to do with terrorism) to reconsider the segregation of pupils by religious faith, and to be stricter in the teaching of science and Enlightenment values. Schools should be, after all, where children learn – about the world in all its complexity, about themselves, and about how to think.

This doesn’t have to mean we deploy the idea of “Britishness”. Don’t take it from me. Ask a clever chap called Michael Gove. In 2007, the future education secretary wrote the following contribution for Prospect magazine, which was then collecting thoughts on Gordon Brown’s efforts to debate the meaning of national identity:

Forgive the Richard Curtis prose in the final paragraph. Concentrate on the first two sentences: “There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness. Rather like define leadership, it’s a quality which is best appreciated when demonstrated through action rather than described in the abstract.” I like this argument, and as a man more prone to action than abstraction, Mr Gove should too.

Where might we turn for such a demonstration? How about the Birmingham schools that Ofsted reviewed. In the fog of reaction to the inspectors’ reports, all the attention has understandably been given to the five “inadequate” schools. But three of the schools were rated “outstanding” for the quality of their management and leadership – Small Heath School, Waverley School and Ninestiles School. In recent years people interested in education policy have become better at looking at what works rather than at what has failed, so let’s give that a shot here as well.

Here is a paragraph from the Small Heath School report:

I can’t speak to the accuracy of Ofsted but don’t you just despise those hate-filled schools championing gay rights and commemorating the battle of the Somme?

There is nothing wrong with having esoteric discussions about the meaning of Britain, especially in a year that is prompting many of us to reflect on who we are. But we should be aware of the limits of thinking about Britishness in the abstract. I like to think about Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, for example, when I think about Britishness (and when I read the paragraph from the Small Heath report), yet we are far from the only country to value tolerance, individual liberty and fairness.

We could spend our time wondering whether Wodehouse, Orwell or someone else best encapsulates British values. That would be fun. Or we could ask how a school in a poor area of Birmingham, full of pupils with parents from all over the world, ended up learning, alongside French pupils, about how Britain stumbled into war in 1914.