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Birmingham Schools

Volume 754: debated on Monday 9 June 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on schools in Birmingham made earlier today in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows.

“Keeping our children safe and ensuring our schools prepare them for life in modern Britain could not be more important. It is my department’s central mission.

Allegations made in what has become known as the Trojan horse letter suggested that children were not being kept safe in Birmingham schools. Ofsted and the Education Funding Agency have investigated those allegations. Their reports and other relevant documents have today been placed in the Library of the House. Let me set out their findings and my actions.

Ofsted states that,

‘headteachers reported … an organised campaign to target … schools … in order to alter their character and ethos’


‘a culture of fear and intimidation’.

Head teachers who had,

‘a record of raising standards’,

reported they had been,

‘marginalised or forced out of their jobs’.

One school leader was so frightened about speaking to the authorities that a meeting had to be arranged in a supermarket car park.

Ofsted concluded that governors,

‘are trying to impose and promote a narrow faith-based ideology in what are non-faith schools’,

specifically by narrowing the curriculum, manipulating staff appointments and using school funds inappropriately.

Overall, Ofsted inspected 21 schools. Three were good or outstanding, while 12 schools were found to require improvement. The remaining six were inadequate and are in special measures. Let me explain why.

At one secular primary school, terms such as ‘white prostitute’, unsuitable for primary children’s ears, were used in Friday assemblies run exclusively by Muslim staff. The school organised visits to Saudi Arabia open only to Muslim pupils. Senior leaders told inspectors that a madrassah had been established and been paid for from the school’s budget. Ofsted concluded the school was,

‘not adequately ensuring that pupils have opportunities to learn about faith in a way that promotes tolerance and harmony between different cultures’.

At one secular secondary school, staff told officials that the call to prayer was broadcast over the playground using loud speakers. Officials observed that lessons had been narrowed to comply with conservative Islamic teachings; in biology, students were told that,

‘evolution is not what we believe’.

The school invited the preacher Sheikh Shady al-Suleiman to speak, despite the fact that he is reported to have said:

‘Give victory to Muslims in Afghanistan … Give victory to all the Mujahideen all over the world. Oh Allah, prepare us for the jihad’.

Ofsted concluded that,

‘governors have failed to ensure that safeguarding requirements and other statutory duties are met’.

At another secular secondary school, inspectors described ‘a state of crisis’, with governors reportedly using school funds to pay private investigators to read the e-mails of senior leaders. Ofsted found a lack of action to protect students from extremism.

At a third secular secondary school, Ofsted found that students were,

‘vulnerable to the risk of marginalisation from wider British society and the associated risks which could include radicalisation’.

And at a secular primary school, Ofsted found that,

‘pupils have limited knowledge of religious beliefs other than Islam’,

and that,

‘subjects such as art and music have been removed—at the insistence of the governing body’.

Inspectors concluded that the school,

‘does not adequately prepare students for life in modern Britain’.

Ofsted also reports failures on the part of Birmingham City Council. It found that the council did not deal adequately with repeated complaints from head teachers. School leaders expressed ‘very little confidence’ in the local authority and Ofsted concluded that Birmingham has not exercised adequate judgment. These findings demand a robust but also considered response.

It is important that no one allows concern about these findings to become a pretext for criticism of Islam itself, a great faith which brings spiritual nourishment to millions and daily inspires countless acts of generosity. The overwhelming majority of British Muslim parents want their children to grow up in schools that open doors rather than close minds, and it is on their behalf that we have to act.

There are, of course, questions about whether warning signs have been missed. There are questions for Birmingham Council, Ofsted and the Department for Education. I have today asked Birmingham Council to review its history on this issue, and the chief inspector has advised me that he will be considering the lessons learnt for Ofsted. I am also concerned that the Department for Education may not have acted when it should. I am asking the Permanent Secretary to investigate how my department dealt with warnings both since the formation of this Government in 2010 and before.

We must all acknowledge that there has been a failure in the past to do everything possible to tackle non-violent extremism. But let me be clear that no Government and no Home Secretary have done more than this Government to tackle extremism. In the Prime Minister’s Munich speech of 2011, in the Home Secretary’s own review of the Prevent strategy and in the conclusions of the Government’s Extremism Task Force last year, this Government have made clear that we need to deal with the dangers posed by extremism well before it becomes violent.

Since 2010, the DfE has increased its capacity to deal with extremism. We set up Whitehall’s first ever unit to counter extremism in public services with help from former intelligence and security professionals. That unit has developed since 2010 and we will continue to strengthen it. Ofsted now trains inspectors to understand and counter extremist Islamist ideology, and inspections of schools at risk, like those in Birmingham, are carried out by the most senior inspectors, overseen by Sir Michael Wilshaw himself.

But there is, of course, more to do, and today’s reports make action urgent. First, we need to take action in the schools found inadequate. Academies will receive letters saying that I am minded to terminate funding agreements. Local authority schools are having governors replaced. We have already spoken to successful academy providers who are ready to act as sponsors.

We need to strengthen our inspection regime even further. The requirement to give notice of inspections clearly makes it more difficult to identify and detect danger signs. Sir Michael Wilshaw and I have argued in the past that no-notice inspections can help identify where pupils are at risk. I have asked him to consider the practicalities of moving to a situation where all schools know that they may receive an unannounced inspection.

I will also work with Sir Michael Wilshaw to ensure that, as he recommends, we can provide greater public assurance that all schools in a locality discharge their full statutory responsibilities, and we will consider how Ofsted can better enforce the existing requirement that all schools teach a broad and balanced curriculum.

I have talked today to the leader of Birmingham Council and requested that it sets out an action plan to tackle extremism and keep children safe.

We already require independent schools, academies and free schools to respect British values. Now we will consult on new rules that will strengthen this standard further and require all schools to actively promote British values. I will ask Ofsted to enforce an equivalent standard on maintained schools through changes to the Ofsted framework.

Several of the governors whose activities have been investigated by Ofsted have also been active in the Association of Muslim Schools UK, which has statutory responsibilities in relation to state Muslim faith schools. So we have asked AMS UK to satisfy us that it is doing enough to protect children from extremism, and we will take appropriate steps if its guarantees are insufficiently robust.

I have also spoken to the National College for Teaching and Leadership and we will further strengthen the rules so that from now on it is explicit that a teacher inviting an extremist speaker into a school can be banned from the profession.

I will, of course, report in July on progress in all the areas I have announced, as well as publishing the findings of the report of Peter Clarke, who is investigating the background behind many of the broader allegations in the Trojan horse letter.

The steps we are taking today are those we consider necessary to protect our children from extremism and protect our nation’s traditions of tolerance and liberty. The conclusions of the reports today are clear. Things that should not have happened in our schools were allowed to happen. Our children were exposed to things they should not have been exposed to. As Education Secretary, I am taking decisive action to make sure that those children are protected. Schools that are proven to have failed will be taken over, put under new leadership and taken in a fresh new direction. Any school could now be subject to rigorous, on-the-spot inspections with no advance warning and no opportunities to conceal failure. We will put the promotion of British values at the heart of what every school has to deliver for children. What we have found was unacceptable and we will put it right. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Undoubtedly these are very serious issues. I am sure he will agree that it is a sad spectacle to see two members of the Cabinet publicly bickering when there are such important issues of governance and child safeguarding at stake.

It is good to hear that the Secretary of State has apologised to the Prime Minister but will he also be apologising to the parents and children in Birmingham who feel badly let down by the consequences of this Government’s education system? Arguably it should be the Minister’s own department that is put in special measures because at the heart of this problem is a complete lack of local oversight in our schools system, resulting from this Government’s attempts to run all schools from Whitehall.

The fact is that this Government were repeatedly warned of these dangers and chose to ignore them. They were warned in 2010 by head teacher Tim Boyes, who made a presentation to the department on the threat of radical infiltration in Birmingham. They were warned by my noble friend Lady Hughes and me during consideration of what became the Education Act 2011 that by centralising control they were leaving themselves dangerously exposed. They were warned by their own civil servants earlier this year that, as more academies and free schools failed,

“more people will be aware that our intervention powers are pretty weak”.

Can the Minister now clarify three things? First, were any Ministers present at Mr Boyes’s presentation in 2010 and what was the agreed follow-up? Secondly, what steps are being taken to inspect schools in other areas given the growing evidence that this is not an isolated problem? Thirdly, does he agree that a thorough review of the Government’s ability to oversee all schools, including academies and free schools, is now essential to reassure parents and pupils that proper scrutiny is being put in place and so that we no longer have to rely on whistleblowers but instead have robust local oversight systems in place for the future?

My Lords, personally, I do not think that this is a matter for political point-scoring or mud-slinging in this House. There has been plenty of that elsewhere. These are very serious and sensitive matters that require analysis, reflection, action and further reflection. Therefore, I will not rise to the political points made by the noble Baroness but concern myself with the facts and evidence in relation to the cases we are dealing with. We have set out today the actions we are taking. There are clearly lessons for all of us in this.

So far as the events in 2010 or any other warnings received by previous Governments are concerned, the Secretary of State announced that the Permanent Secretary is investigating this. Personally, I find it very surprising that the Labour Party is propagating local control bearing in mind the complete abject failure of Birmingham City Council in these schools over many years. The chief inspector’s remarks are littered with criticism of Birmingham City Council in relation to this.

On the fact that these schools are academies, 21 schools were inspected and 13 of those were local authority maintained schools. It is true that four of the six in special measures are academies but 60% of all secondary schools are academies and nine of the 11 “Requires improvement” schools were local authority maintained schools, so drawing any kind of line through that is rather difficult. The fact that they were academies has nothing to do with the matter. All schools—academies, grammar schools, maintained schools and faith schools—are required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum. It is in this respect, substantially, that the relevant schools failed.

The key figures in this story have been governors for many years. One of them has been a governor of one school for 20 years while it was a local authority maintained school. Within two years of it becoming an academy, we uncovered these issues and are dealing with them. Academies are subject to considerably greater accountability than local authority maintained schools. They must publish annual accounts, which local authority maintained schools do not. They are subject to the oversight of the Education Funding Agency, which has been extremely helpful in this regard.

My Lords, I had the pleasure of introducing Mr Tim Boyes, head teacher of Queensbridge School, to the noble Lord, Lord Hill, in 2010. I was grateful to the noble Lord for meeting Mr Boyes and allowing him to go on to meet officials. I listened with interest to the Minister who said that there is now to be an inquiry into what subsequently happened but I think he should say a little bit more about what his own department did or did not do after it was alerted to these very pressing issues.

I have long been concerned about what has been happening in some of our Birmingham schools. Would the Minister agree that this is not so much an issue about links to terrorism or, necessarily, extremism but that a small group of people were determined to change the governing bodies in a number of schools using entryist tactics? How that happens is well known to many Lords. In so doing, these people undermined the existing head teachers and caused a great deal of distress to many of the teachers—including many Muslim teachers—who found themselves very isolated because it appeared that no action could be taken.

I understand that the noble Lord said that Ofsted will now undertake spot inspections but I want him to answer the point raised by my noble friend. There are other schools in other parts of the country. Remarkably, the noble Lord’s Secretary of State allowed some schools linked to creationism to be established. Will those spot inspections apply to those schools to protect them from the dogma of creationism, which I believe to be reprehensible? I also ask the Minister—

I would just like to ask the Minister about Ofsted. Ofsted has now found that many of these schools need to go into special measures. I am glad that it has done so but why did Ofsted, in recent inspections of some of these schools, classify them as outstanding? We can have little faith in Ofsted’s approach if it missed all the troubles that have been going on in those schools.

On the events of 2010 or previously, I will not comment further. The Permanent Secretary is looking at that. We have established a due diligence and counterextremism unit, which is extremely well resourced and has proved highly successful.

On whether this is confined to a small group of individuals or a wider issue, that is for Peter Clarke to determine. Of course, there have been suggestions that there are issues in Bradford. Indeed, the Trojan horse letter was allegedly sent to someone in Bradford. Bradford City Council is taking these matters extremely seriously. One school has had an IEB placed in it. We do not believe that these issues are spreading that widely.

So far as creationism is concerned, or any other form of what could be called extremism, of course Ofsted could inspect these schools. Creationism is specifically not allowed in our schools and funding agreements prohibit it.

So far as the apparent change in the Ofsted outcomes is concerned, we have complete confidence in Ofsted’s findings. These are supported by the EFA’s reports. The chief inspector reports that a culture of fear and intimidation has developed in some of these schools since their previous inspections, which has resulted in significantly stark changes and low morale—as I said, since the previous inspections. It may also be the case that because these previous inspections were conducted on notice that events were concealed.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister answer three questions? First, he will be aware that outstanding schools do not have the same period of inspection, so will these one-off, on-the-spot inspections also include outstanding schools? Secondly, how does he think that local oversight of schools can be advanced? Thirdly, would he consider that Ofsted should have as a hallmark of any inspection that the school provides a broad and balanced curriculum? Finally, he mentioned that any teacher who invites an extremist to speak in the school would be dismissed. I am aware of schools where governors invited extremist speakers into school to speak. Should that then not lead to the governor being removed—or the head teacher—for allowing that to happen?

My noble friend asked four questions. The answer to the first, on whether no-notice inspections can occur in outstanding schools, is yes, if it was thought appropriate. On local oversight, I already expressed my views on the failure of that in this case. Noble Lords will know that we have hired eight regional schools commissioners who will provide oversight on a regional basis using head teacher boards from top academies. We believe that this is a more effective way of dealing with these matters. “Yes” is the answer to Ofsted looking for a broad and balanced curriculum. We will now consult on the ability for all independent schools to ban governors with extremist links. They would then be banned from sitting on maintained schools’ boards.

My Lords, let us hear from my noble friend Lord Baker, then, I suggest, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and then the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Then we will hear from other speakers.

Is the Minister aware that what was announced by Mr Gove today will be welcomed across the country, because he was preventing what had been set up as secular schools being transformed, very determinedly but quite slowly, into single-faith Muslim schools, and such a transformation is unacceptable in the English education system? It is a credit to Sir Michael Wilshire and his inspectors that they revealed what is happening.

This will be a difficult and long task, but I suggest to the Minister that it would be easier if he were to announce a moratorium on the approval of any new single-faith schools. The object we are trying to achieve is that students in British schools, irrespective of their race, colour, creed or faith, will sit next to each other, play with each other, eat with each other, go home in the buses with each other and respect each other. If we do not achieve that, our society will be divided by faith and that would be disastrous for our country.

I welcome my noble friend’s extremely mature comments, with which I largely agree. So far as a moratorium on faith schools is concerned, there is a great place in our society for faith and church schools, which have been extremely successful. Church schools in fact promote community cohesion, it is acknowledged, better than other schools. We must make sure that all schools promote community cohesion and inclusiveness.

My Lords, I make no apology for responding by returning to the dog that did not bark in the Minister’s speech, which is the chronic dysfunctionality of the relationships across departments in tackling extremism. I do not accept the Minister’s implication—his explicit reference—that this is party-political. From, if I may say so, a little more experience of dealing with these issues than the noble Lord, perhaps I may say that it is an essential prerequisite for tackling extremism that there is the best and smoothest cross-departmental approach—across prisons, community services, local government and education itself. It astonishes me that there was no reference to that in the Statement.

The Minister and I agree about the action plans, but the action plans are only as good as those who are leading the strategic position. It astonishes me that there was no reference to what is obviously the dysfunctionality between those two departments. The whole idea of forming the Office of Security and Counterterrorism in the Home Office—I declare an interest because I was behind the formation of that organisation, to which the Minister referred—was to enhance co-ordination across departments. If that is lacking and there are no plans to try to improve on that despite personalities, the actions that he has mentioned today will not be as effective as we all want.

Of course, the noble Lord is extremely experienced in these matters and I bow to his much greater experience of them than mine, but there is no dysfunctionality between the departments. We are working extremely well across departments and across all agencies on this matter.

My Lords, the great lesson of Northern Ireland is to combat not just violent acts but also extreme ideologies, communal ideologies and religious ideologies of bigotry. Can the Minister assure us, in the light of the statements of both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary in the other place this afternoon, that the Government are still united on the basis that it is necessary to combat the ideologies of extremism as well as violent acts?

My Lords, we have time. Perhaps we could hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who has been trying to get in, and then come to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and then to the Liberal Democrats.

I am most grateful. There is no doubt that the report makes very uncomfortable reading for everyone. All parts of the education system need to look at how they have performed and ask real questions about what has gone on in recent years. Beyond the no-notice inspections by Ofsted, I find the report more shallow than I would have expected. On no-notice Ofsted inspections, I would be amazed if the wool could be drawn over Ofsted’s eyes just by giving 24 or 48 hours’ notice. I am not convinced at all that merely sending Ofsted in with no notice will enable it to spot these things if it could not spot them with 24 or 48 hours’ notice.

The point I want to raise that has not been raised is that, while excusing no individual in these schools or the local authority, or anyone anywhere from the consequences of their actions, has not the Minister reflected that, in a way, government policies over the past five years have made this situation more likely, not less likely to happen? What we read in the report is the downside to some of the Government’s flagship policies: inviting parents to play a greater part in deciding the values and type of education their children receive; destroying many of the partnerships that meant that what one school did was visible to another; massively reducing local oversight of schools; encouraging teachers, often with no qualifications, to make up their own curriculum as they go along; and excusing outstanding schools from any inspection at all. Without saying that there is nothing to be gained by those policies, the fact is that the Government have made no allowance at all for coping with the downside of some of their key flagship policies. What is the Minister going to do about that now?

It is true that in recent years, Ofsted has strengthened its inspection regime by recruiting inspectors who speak Arabic and Urdu and are trained in the various Islamic ideologies, but we have today announced many other actions that we will be taking in relation to those schools. I do not accept that it is as a result of recent government actions that these things have happened. The noble Baroness may believe that these things have suddenly turned around; they have in fact taken root in these schools over many years, particularly under the previous Government, but it is this Government who have dealt with those points.

The Minister painted a very worrying picture, and we should all work together to improve things. The use of special measures in the Birmingham schools and the prospect of unannounced inspections are good things. In my experience, both in government and in business, they can make a huge difference, so I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on that particular point.

What wider measures can be taken in schools to tackle the culture that breeds terrorism? Examples might include preventing teaching about suicide bombing, reducing gender segregation and even, perhaps, looking at copying the French, who have prevented various forms of face covering, in addition to the Minister’s proposals for banning extremist speakers and, above all, promoting British values.

The noble Baroness is quite right. I outlined in the Statement the other actions that we will be taking, including, as she says, promoting British values. One issue that has come out of these Ofsted reports is the importance of keeping children safe on the internet. It is widely known that the biggest recruiting ground for extremism is the internet, so it is particularly important that we focus on that issue, as the Government are. As I said, we will be taking steps to ban teachers and governors from promoting extremism.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. Does the noble Lord agree that this activity does not emulate the Trojan horse so much as follow the violent Muslim tenet of al-hijrah, whereby the faithful are instructed to emulate the Prophet after he became established in Medina and sent into exile or slaughtered his generous hosts who did not join his new religion? In this respect, is it not very worrying that one of the schools in question is actually called the al-Hijrah School? If I understood the noble Lord to say that the Government are going to look into this problem elsewhere, will he make sure that they look at least at Blackburn, Bradford, Burnley, Tower Hamlets, Leicester, Dewsbury and Huddersfield?

My Lords, I am sure you will agree that our society is greatly enriched by the Muslim population in this country, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding and substantial contributors to our way of life.

The parents, mostly Muslim, who have sent their children to these schools expect them to receive a secular education that prepares them for life in modern Britain and an education that opens doors rather than closes them, as the Secretary of State said. That is not what happened here. The al-Hijrah school is in the process of installing an IEB.

By one of those serendipitous moments, only yesterday I was told the story of a lady who was walking through an estate in south London, not far from here, when she was mugged. A young Muslim schoolgirl set about the mugger and saw him off, so the lady thanked her and they went on their way. Three days later, the lady met this young Muslim schoolgirl again and said, “You must be a hero in your school”, but she said, “No, I haven’t told anybody about this”. The lady then wrote to the school and told the head about it. To me, that is a wonderful example of the beauty of the Muslim faith and its belief in helping others, and in modesty.

My Lords, as somebody from a Muslim background who was brought up with a secular education and is a believer in that, I do not believe in faith schools. We should not be rolling out far more faith schools but promoting children growing up by learning about all faiths and none—and sitting side by side, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said. However, I have been absolutely dismayed by the way that this has been handled. There has been a drip-drip of leaks, speculation and, as we heard, children in schools being smeared as though they are all somehow subject to extremism. As we have heard, there is obviously troubling information in what has been reported and that must be dealt with, but it concerns a minority of people. I have read reports from teachers on the ground in these schools and parents who want the best for their children through a good education and good GCSEs. When children are taking GCSEs in these schools, is this the time for this constant “Trojan horse” speculation? Given the political football created by the way it has been handled, does the Minister not agree that this is extremely damaging for those children who are just trying to do their GCSEs and are being targeted? They are afraid to go on buses wearing the school uniforms of some of these schools for fear of being singled out and called terrorists, bombers and extremists. Is this helpful?

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness’s comments on the aims. As for the drip-drip, people sometimes refer to the slowness with which some of these Ofsted reports have officially come into the public domain, but it is important in these cases that we give the schools time to respond and that Ofsted can therefore check its facts. However, as far as the timing of this is concerned, we had to act and we have done so.

My Lords, the Minister may not be aware that earlier this afternoon in his maiden speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said that good religious education is one of the best ways of countering religious extremism. I would be interested to know whether the Minister agrees. Given that none of the schools subject to these inspections in Birmingham were faith schools—although listening to our discussion, you would have thought otherwise—does it not seem that appropriate, well balanced and enriching religious education may have been an area of neglect? I cannot help but wonder whether this has been facilitated too easily by the way in which religious education has sometimes been marginalised in the curriculum by the Department for Education in recent years and whether we are reaping some reward for that.

I agree entirely with the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. This certainly raises issues on how we inspect for religious education.