Nicky Morgan described the findings of Peter Clarke’s report into the Birmingham schools scandal as ‘disturbing’, and laid out how she plans to respond.
Morgan announced that Sir Bob Kerslake, the outgoing head of the home civil service, will conduct a review into the affair. A new education commissioner will be appointed for Birmingham. The Secretary of State will take greater control if necessary. Morgan outlined how teachers who invite extremist speakers will be disciplined, and explained that Ofsted will have greater oversight of governors — including in academies and free schools.
‘British values’ were central to Morgan’s statement because ‘extremism’ has been defined as those values which contradict British values. Morgan defined ‘British values’ as being ‘tolerance’ and ‘the rule of law’ (described in the Ofsted inspection handbook) in the subsequent debate. ‘Ofsted will inspect how well all schools are actively promoting British values,’ she said.
After the storms between Gove and May, Morgan is evidently keen to bury internal rivalries. She was quick to praise Theresa May: ‘No Home Secretary and no government,’ she said, ‘has done more to tackle extremism.’ Yet her statement was entirely in keeping with the approach favoured by Michael Gove. Indeed, Morgan defended Gove’s conduct, and said that those who hope to use this scandal to derail the government’s education reforms will be disappointed, which inspired cheers on the Tory benches.
One such person is Tristram Hunt. His reply to Morgan was unashamedly partisan. He said that the government’s plan was a ‘structural admission of failure’ across the entire ‘fractured’ education system. He added that coalition policy has ‘fomented’ the failures in Birmingham. He spoke of Whitehall’s ‘malign neglect’, and called for more action. He welcomed two government u-turns on education policy: the introduction of schools commissioners and Ofsted inspections of academy chains. Would there be more, he asked.
It was an aggressive performance from Hunt, replete with snappy soundbites designed, one suspects, for the editors of the 6 O’Clock News. Morgan, though, swatted aside Hunt’s objections by referring to page 90 of the Clarke report, which exonerates the government and concludes that the fault lay with a few self-interested governors at some schools in Birmingham. In other words, this is not an endemic problem. Thus, Morgan edged the lively exchange at the dispatch box.
The ensuing backbench questions raised several salient points. Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP, used parliamentary privilege to name several figures in Birmingham who need, in his view, to be investigated. And Liam Byrne, the former Labour minister, raised the prospect of the schools commissioner having the power to sack teachers and officials who are found to be promoting extremism.
There was widespread relief, on both sides of the House, that the report had failed to find evidence of ‘radicalisation’, although this does overlook the fact the Clarke was not asked to look for such evidence. Morgan expressed her determination to tackle extremism with the help of the Muslim community, the vast majority of which is opposed to extremist elements. The House supported her ambition.
There was little discussion of the role and status of faith schools, which have become a target of criticism in the course of this affair. Conservative backbencher Andrew Stephenson asked Morgan for assurance that she would not withdraw her support for faith schools, which she was happy to give.