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Jun 13, 2014

Australian schools, get ready for an ideological onslaught

The curious case of the "Trojan Horse" document in the United Kingdom has vital lessons for Australia's education system.

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When the British put on a show, they really put on a show. Panto, the proms, coronations — and now a major clusterfuck over education, values, Britishness, etc, that has come to be known as the Trojan Horse mystery.

The story so far: some months ago, a secret document entitled Trojan Horse was leaked to The Times. It appeared to be a document outlining a sinister plan by a group of Islamist community elders in Birmingham as to how to take over a number of state schools in Muslim-dominated areas. The schools in question were academies — state-funded but independently managed by groups of parents and  teachers — and the plan was to take over the governing positions, sack moderate teachers and enforce Islamist values,

Even a cursory reading suggested that the plan was a hoax — what sort of Islamist would title an anti-Western manifesto after something from Homer? — but it had the desired effect nevertheless. Inspectors swooped on a dozen or so schools, even those that had recently been inspected, and judged them mostly wanting. There were tales of classrooms being segregated, of Christmas celebrations being cancelled (this is a state school, not a dedicated faith school), school trips for Muslim students only to Saudi Arabia, etc.

The head teachers of these schools swore blind that none of these things were true, and that some initiatives were taken out of context. They say that the Education Department inspectors came in with an agenda, determined to find fault. Given the politicisation of the department — and the separate inspection department, Ofsted — that seems likely, but it also seems clear that a small section of the Birmingham Muslim community were up to something shady.

The mysterious crisis has been a tricky issue for manic Education Minister Michael Gove, since he (and Labour) have championed academy-style schools as a way of getting parents and the community involved in improving school quality. That opens school control to the best — and also the worst, usually crackpots and obsessives, less often the actively conspiratorial. Gove would prefer that the sort of “Trojan Horse” thing be prevented by the simple expedient of having a monocultural society, or at least a Muslim-free one.

That being impossible, he has opted instead for a regime of surprise inspections to prevent the spread of “extremism”, which means every state school in a Muslim area will get heat-seeking attention, while private Christian fundamentalist and ultra-orthodox Jewish schools with highly questionable gender etc messages get a free pass. Indeed, he’s going further, asserting that all schools must teach “Britishness” — despite saying five years before that there was something unBritish about teaching Britishness (when Gordon Brown suggested it).

Why this bizarre tale should be of interest is that it is coming soon, to an Australian school system near you — and those who believe in a viable state school system are utterly unprepared for the ideological onslaught. That’s particularly so because of Australia’s distinctive history of state and private education — its scattering into non-federal, state-based systems for a start, and the cross-funding of low-fee private schools, which effectively creates a de facto voucher system in education.

Low-fee private schools have been accessible in Australia in a way that’s unknown in the United States and, from the 1960s to the ’90s, in the UK. Partial, selective and still out of reach for many low-income families, such schools have removed demands for school autonomy from the state system — since some of those that want school autonomy vote with their feet. Australia has a distinctive type — the non-Catholic kid sent to a Catholic school because it was affordable and then deprogrammed by parents after hours.

That split has left state-based state school systems relatively unchanged since the grand old days of huge, top-down government bureaucracies. Where health, regional management, social services, etc, have gone through substantial change, education soldiers on. That has had advantages in creating a strong ethos of state-education within the system — but it has also made supporters of state systems complacent about the shortcomings of such top-down systems, and the gap between private and state school performance (above and beyond the former having more money).

The political danger of that — given that the Abbott government has already started pushing school “autonomy” and tying it to funding — is that champions of the state system will become purely defensive and reactionary. The truth is that some form of greater school autonomy is coming, that applied correctly it can produce improved state-system results, and that if state system supporters do not come up with positive models of structural change for the state system, the least fair one will be imposed.

True, few people clamour for such autonomy — but the experience of the UK is that once it is offered, many parents grab at the chance of it and reward those parties that guarantee to maintain and extend it. Whether such change offers better outcomes is a matter for specialist debate; whether the more privatised versions of the system — charter and free schools — are as fair isn’t. They aren’t — and the only way to head off selective, privatised education is to have a positive state-public alternative. I have to say I don’t see much evidence of that from the teaching unions and other state education advocates. Without it, I fear we will get the full Birmingham panto, and more.

Oh, and that phrase “Trojan Horse” in this context? Turns out it does have a history — it was used in a 2006 book about “the suicide of the West” for a chapter about Islamist education. Gove, the author’s name was, Michael. I wonder what happened to him?

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