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Don’t use the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot as a Trojan Horse against school autonomy

11 June 2014

12:47 PM

11 June 2014

12:47 PM

As the smoke clears around the Birmingham Trojan Horse investigations, a real sense of the scale and seriousness of the issues is finally emerging. With five schools being judged ‘inadequate’ and 11 more identified as ‘requires improvement’ there are substantial concerns that need to be addressed and lessons that need to be learned across the system.

But it is also clear that these issues are not unique to one particular type of school. Almost all of the 16 schools – academies and maintained schools alike – have been told to review their governance or safeguarding arrangements. With oversight of these schools spanning variously the local authority, Education Funding Agency, Department for Education and Ofsted everyone has serious lessons to learn.

Unfortunately though we are starting to see this case being used as a scapegoat by those that remain opposed to the growth of academies and free schools, even after 15 years in which governments of all stripes have sought to expand the freedom and autonomy of schools. They are seeking to co-opt this Trojan Horse in all senses and use the events in Birmingham to overshadow the very real and positive developments that the growth of academies has had on the system as a whole. But we should all be wary of efforts the question the positive impact of putting responsibility in the hands of Headteachers by conflating academy freedoms in general with the specific concerns raised by these recent cases.

The bottom line is that the freedoms enjoyed by academies have allowed headteachers to run better schools. Schools that offer extended days; give students more teaching time; pay staff according to performance; or give children who would not usually have the chance the opportunity to access extra-curricular activities. But, most importantly, academies have helped raise standards and educational achievement for pupils around the country. The reward of putting headteachers in control is also evident in the entrepreneurialism that has allowed schools like Perry Beeches – one of the best academies in Birmingham – to open three new free schools (four come September) and so enable hundreds more students in one of the most deprived areas of the city to access an excellent education.


The fear being exploited in this case is that autonomy is coming at the cost of effective oversight. What this fails to acknowledge is that the proposed alternative – local authority oversight – is by no means a flawless alternative. The fact that two maintained schools go into Special Measures every day shows that local authority oversight is no guarantee of high standards. And it must be remembered that Academies were introduced in the first place to address concerns about the quality of educational standards under the previous local authority controlled system.

Of course, autonomy and accountability must be in lock step. And in fact the early years and evolution of the free schools programme offers a number of lessons that could usefully be extended to the system more broadly. For example, as brand new institutions, free schools are subject to robust background checks on the governors involved in setting them up – more so than other state schools. They are also required to prove in their proposals how they will provide a broad and balanced curriculum and how they will work with all sections of the community to promote a culture of inclusion – things which Ofsted found were sorely lacking in some of the Birmingham schools.

And where there have been challenges in a tiny minority of free schools – issues have been addressed decisively and quickly. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the over 150 maintained schools that have been in special measures for over a year, showing again how free schools can be part of a solution for our education system.

All parties are agreed that oversight and governance of schools are of critical importance. They are all looking at options for a regional structure that could help address some of the issues that have arisen in Birmingham and, although they may disagree on the detail, the fact that everyone is moving in the same direction surely suggests that this must not become a political wedge issue: it’s too important for that.

The lesson of the original Trojan Horse was to ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’. In this case it is perhaps more ‘beware critics bearing easy answers’.

Natalie Evans is director of the New Schools Network

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Show comments
  • Airey Belvoir

    As a child I was educated by a religious cult with extreme views, who told me that not fully accepting everything I was taught would lead to eternal hellfire. We were all ‘sinners’, (even newborns were sinful and had to be detoxed with special water) lived in a permanent state of guilt, were taught a range of ‘incontrovertible facts’ ranging from scientifically impossible to batshit crazy. Creationism was a given. No contact with girls. We also had to worship the cult’s main totem, a gruesome statue of a half-naked man being tortured to death. So much for Roman Catholics; maybe the British Muslim kids currently being similarly brainwashed will also grow up and out of this nonsense. I hope they do, for all our sakes.

    • John Dalton

      How pathetic to turn this into a criticism of Christianity. The two are completely different – you know it and so does everybody else. And your last two sentences constitute a perfect example of the fingers in the ears head in the sand mentality that has gotten us into this mess.

      • Airey Belvoir

        I was really trying to point out that all religions are nuts, but it can be hard to see them objectively from the inside. For me it was a kind of aversion therapy – if you think that Muslim kids won’t eventually think for themselves you may be right. I suppose that the threat of death for apostasy is a bigger deterrent than simply being called ‘lapsed.’

  • John Dalton

    Well done – yet another piece that doesn’t mention I*SLAM and therefore utterly fails to address the real issues here. But this typical cowardice is ok – because, as usual, “concerns” must be addressed and “lessons must be learned”. Move along. Nothing to see here.

    • In2minds

      In 2005 Richard Mawrey QC heard the case about vote rigging in
      Birmingham and gave us the famous line about a ‘banana republic’. The
      largest number of votes stolen was in Bordesley Green, again in the news as one of the districts involved in the school scandal. The people who stole the votes did so for the same reason people have tried to take over schools. It’s called Islamification. Democracy first and now schools under threat, time to act?