Oona King gets to the bottom of who forced Mr Gove’s u-turn on ‘British values’
Who forced Education Secretary Michael Gove into a massive u-turn? In 2007 he said: “There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness”. Now he has decided not only to define Britishness, but to legally require every British school to do so, and at the same time “promote British values”.
Everyone agrees that British values around the rule of law, individual liberty, and tolerance, helped create of one of the world's oldest and most successful democracies. We're less agreed on the recent implication that a better understanding of, say, the Magna Carta, might sort out poor school governance in Birmingham. That's obviously a bit of a caricature, but the point is that shared British values should be instilled by example, not diktat. Moreover, it feels like an Orwellian and distinctly un-British approach to do what the Government has done in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair, which is to tar an entire community with language taken from counter-terrorism strategies.
The crisis in Birmingham throws up two key issues that are central to improving our education system. The first is oversight and accountability. The second, ensuring our children get a balanced education, within tolerant, aspirational communities.
On accountability, it's extraordinary that a self-confessed neo-conservative like Mr Gove (who rails against the tyranny of centrally-planned economies) has devised a school bureaucracy so centralised it would make Lenin proud. That would be one thing; but his insanity in thinking he can run thousands and thousands of schools from a desk in Whitehall has been a shambolic failure.
It’s not just that Mr Gove’s desk was submerged. Children and parents were failed, and teachers – while delivering high attainment for their pupils – were abandoned. The minority of schools concerned displayed appalling governance, gender discrimination, homophobia, and financial irregularities. They were also unduly influenced by a conservative religious minority.
So what's the answer?
It's a combination of the following 4 areas:
First, end centralisation, and introduce local oversight. That’s what Labour's policy for local and independent directors of school standards does. The Tories meanwhile is to introduce eight regional commissioners – a system that lacks local oversight so can’t remedy the current weakness.
Secondly, where discrimination is found – for instance, in attitudes towards girls, gay people, or members of particular religious groups – it’s time to put that great British value into action: uphold the rule of law and enforce the 2010 Equality Act! That’s why the last Labour Government introduced the Act, because it safeguards basic British values around fairness and individual liberty. And we did so in the face of full-throated opposition from many Conservatives and Lib Dems.
Thirdly, we need schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, and Ofsted should judge schools on their ability to do this; and prevent them offering a narrow or doctrinaire approach.
Fourth, we should reflect on the wisdom of removing the responsibility of Ofsted to ensure that schools promote community cohesion.
So yes, let's learn from our past. But the most relevant history isn't the Magna Carta. It might be important that 800 years ago our baronial forefathers slapped King John about (mainly for their own interests), and put him in his place – a place on the throne which became less divine and fractionally more accountable and democratic. Our relevant history isn't from 1215, it's from 2001.
The key finding of the 2001 Cantle Report into the Oldham and Bradford riots was that a failure to integrate education systems placed communities on a collision course. British values around the rule of law, and respect of individual liberty, went up in flames. None of us want that. The current atomised and fragmented system, so beloved of Mr Gove, makes it more likely that schools and communities become isolated. And it puts schools at risk from narrow sectarian interests who can wreak havoc by evading scrutiny.
The Education Department was alerted to the situation in Birmingham four years ago. You can imagine the letter lying unopened on Mr Gove’s cluttered desk, while teachers and children were left alone to deal with intimidation, discrimination and worse.
Let’s hope the Government now does its homework, becomes less ideologically-driven, and puts local safeguards in place to protect children’s education. By all means define and promote British values. But let’s be clear, it was the Education Secretary’s laissez-faire values and disregard for oversight and scrutiny that led to this fiasco. It was Mr Gove who forced Mr Gove into a u-turn.
Baroness Oona King of Bow is a Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @Oona_King
Published 26th June 2014