The “Trojan Horse” affair revealed more problems with Ofsted and the Department for Education than it did with actual extremism within schools, an influential Parliamentary committee has concluded.
The controversy, which blew up last year over an alleged Islamist plot to take over the running of several Birmingham schools, resulted in multiple official inquiries and reports.
But today, as he launched the Commons Education Select Committee’s report into the affair, committee chairman Graham Stuart said: “One incident apart, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found by any of the inquiries in any of the schools involved.
“Neither was there any evidence of a sustained plot, nor of significant problems in other parts of the country.
“The Trojan Horse affair is less about extremism than about governance and the ability of local and central agencies to respond to whistle-blowers and to correct abuses of power within schools.”
The MPs’ report is particularly critical of the way in which Ofsted and the Department for Education responded to the controversy.
It says that confidence in Ofsted has been “undermined” and that the inspectorate’s “inability to identify problems at some Birmingham schools on first inspection, when they were found shortly afterwards to be failing, raises questions about the appropriateness of the framework and the reliability and robustness of Ofsted’s judgements and how they are reached”.
The report also notes that the Department for Education was “slow to take an active interest” between December 2013, when it was first sent the original Trojan Horse allegations, and March 2014, when the issue became public.
The MPs describe this lack of interest as “surprising”, given the “heightened emphasis on combating radicalisation and extremism”.
They also warn that the greater autonomy given to academies makes it “easier for a group of similar-minded people to control a school”.
“The DfE needs to be alert to the risks of abuse of academy freedoms of all kinds and be able to respond quickly,” the report recommends.
But education secretary Nicky Morgan told TES: “I would push back on whether it was a particular type of school. I think that what we saw was that these issues happened in all different types of schools.”
The MPs’ report is also critical of the way that public bodies responded when they did begin to act on the claims of a fundamentalist takeover.
“We found a worrying and wasteful lack of coordination between the various inquiries carried out by the DfE, Birmingham City Council, the Education Funding Agency, Ofsted and others,” Mr Stuart said.
“In the case of the Birmingham schools, the number of overlapping inquiries contributed to the sense of crisis and confusion.”
Ofsted has already stated that it did not find extremism in the schools it inspected over Trojan Horse. But Sir Michael Wilshaw, the watchdog’s chief inspector, told the MPs: “What we did see was the promotion of a culture that would, if that culture continued, have made the children in those schools vulnerable to extremism because of… the disconnection from wider society and cultural isolation.”
Similarly, Ms Morgan told Parliament last year that while there was “no evidence of direct radicalisation or violent extremism”, there had been “people in positions of influence in these schools, who have a restricted and narrow interpretation of their faith, not promoting British values and failing to challenge the extremist views of others”.
The only evidence of extremism the committee heard came from Ian Kershaw, who led Birmingham Council’s inquiry into Trojan Horse.
The MPs report that Mr Kershaw told them “he had evidence that a film promoting violent jihadist extremism had been shown to children in one classroom and the teacher had not been disciplined”.
The committee argues that while this example was “clearly unacceptable… a single instance does not warrant headline claims that students in Birmingham – or elsewhere in England – are being exposed to extremism by their teachers”.
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Sudden changes in governance and leadership can have a significant impact on the standards in education. These Birmingham schools were no exception.
“Ofsted is committed to ensuring that such drastic declines are not repeated elsewhere and will continue to work closely with other agencies to identify and investigate any areas of concern.”
A DfE spokesman said its “understanding of the challenge of extremism, and the way we monitor the ability of schools to respond to it, has advanced hugely in the past few years”.
“As today’s report recognises, we are tackling this problem at both ends: taking determined action where we find areas of concern, and building resilience in the system by putting the active promotion of fundamental British values at the very heart of our plan for education.
“We are putting in place a helpline for schools to raise extremism concerns more easily and are working closely with Ofsted, having strengthened their inspection handbook to include fundamental British values.
“No government has done more to tackle extremism, but we remain vigilant. We will respond to the report’s recommendations in due course,” he added.
Department for Education criticised for not scrutinising extremism risk – 16 January 2015