500 at the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign launch rally

Professor Richard Hatcher of Birmingham City University writes

The Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign was launched last night with a huge public rally of at least 500 people (according to ITN News). In the two and a half hour meeting the main speakers included NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney, Birmingham Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, Shabina Bano of the Oldknow parents campaign, Tim Brighouse, former Chief Education Officer for Birmingham (on video), and Salma Yaqoob, ex-Respect leader and former Birmingham councillor. It is Salma who has played the leading role in creating this broad and inclusive campaign. There followed a series of short speeches from the platform including from community activists, Labour councillors (and one LibDem), and Birmingham NUT.

Speakers were united in rejecting the Trojan Horse allegations of a Muslim extremist plot and Gove’s exploitation of them to attack the Muslim community in Birmingham with biased Ofsted inspections. There was a strong sense of Birmingham’s identity as a multicultural city built by successive waves of immigration and determined to resist racist divisions. The campaign recognises that there are some governance problems in some schools, but those should be dealt with by the community in Birmingham, not by a politically-motivated assault by government.

In my short contribution I made two points. The first was about the policy tools which Gove has used to put his Islamophobic attack into practice. There are three. First, his unprecedented dictatorial powers as secretary of state. Second, his use of Ofsted as an arm of government policy, not an independent and supportive evaluator of schools. Third, creating a situation in which governors are unaccountable to the local community through a combination of the academies policy and the disempowering of local authorities. These are policies which the Labour leadership should commit itself to reversing – but so far has given no sign of doing so.

My second point concerned the next steps for the campaign. The huge attendance at the meeting makes clear that there is the desire and the opportunity to seize the initiative from Gove and create our own shared vision of what a high quality socially just education would be, through an ongoing dialogue between parents, teachers and the local community. Not stigmatised schools in a stigmatised community but a model which other schools and communities across the city and beyond (where problems of unaccountable governance can also occur) can learn from.

The Labour local authority should be part of this new partnership, but they have to change. The city council has set up its own inquiry into the Trojan Horse allegation, due to report in a month, but the Review members don’t include any representatives of parents, or of the local community, or of teachers and other school workers and their unions. The council needs to follow up the Review by creating an open, inclusive and democratic forum within which the dialogue the community wants can take place over the coming months, generating plans for action. Will the council be prepared to do this? (I asked the councillor responsible for ‘social cohesion’ last night but he had no answer.) If the council won’t take a lead the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign will need to do it itself.

These are the sorts of practical and political issues that the campaign will need to discuss now that the initial launch has demonstrated that it has mass support.

There is one other step that needs to be taken: to turn Gove’s attack on Birmingham into an attack at the national level on Gove’s education policies which have enabled it: dictatorial central control, an inspection system that urgently needs reform, a system of school governance that, in Tim Brighouse’s words, is broken, the abuse of academy freedom, the disempowering and in some cases virtual incapacity of local authorities (taking up the call by the Local Government Association for their restoration), and the place of religion in schools. There is a proposal that the NUT could take the lead in organising a conference on that basis in the autumn.

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3 Comments on “500 at the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign launch rally”

  1. David Pavett says:

    It is good to have a report of the meeting and excellent that so many turned out for it. What is clear on this, as on so many other educational issues, is that there is no shortage of progressive educational policies but that what we lack is any political force willing to take them up and change the direction of English education. As Richard says, there is a whole set of policies, from the role of Ofsted, the composition and role of governing bodies and the absence of a local authority framework for schools which the Labour Party will not touch. It is disturbing to hear of the inaction of the Birmingham councillor responsible for ‘social cohesion’ on the issue of bringing all concerned parties together to develop a robust response to the situation.

    While the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations seem to have faded away the affair has nevertheless exposed what those who cared to look knew already namely that the role of religion (in which Islam is a mere beginner in the overall picture) in state-funded schools is now an increasingly contentious issue and we desperately need politicians prepared to speak about it and to show how to back out of the mess we have got into. The role of religion and of organised religious interests (Christian, Jewish, Hindhu, Sikh, Muslims, whatever) now needs to be progressively reduced but which leading politician will speak openly about this? The majority of the public thinks it is time to reduce the role of religion in schools but that is not reflected in our ‘democratic’ system. There is no better expression of the remove between our politicians and the public they are supposed to serve.

  2. Richard Hatcher says:

    The front page headline in today’s Birmingham Post is ‘Education department must go – Ofsted chief’. Wilshaw told the House of Commons Select Committee that it should be broken up into a number of smaller authorities. Wilshaw and Gove – not to mention Adonis – have been longstanding critics of Birmingham, and now the Trojan Horse affair – which, remember, found no evidence of ‘extremism’ – is being used as a wrecking ball to demolish the local authority, with Wilshaw as Gove’s stalking-horse.

    Anyone who knows Birmingham will know that it makes no sense to artificially dismember a city with strong common institutions and identity. Of course there are problems with the local authority, but most of them are the result of Gove’s policies: loss of inside knowledge about and influence over the 55% of secondary schools and nearly one in three primary schools that have become academies, and the savage cuts in its central education support services, now reduced to a handful of people. The best step the authority could take would be to open itself up to more public and professional participation, starting with its handling of the anti-Trojan Horse campaign and continuing with a campaign to defend the local authority against being broken up – which could well lead if the Tories win in 2015 to rich pickings for private companies.

    Where does the Labour leadership stand in all this? The immediate response of Miliband and Hunt should be to denounce Wilshaw’s provocation and pledge that a Labour government would reverse any break-up and restore a unified local authority. How long will they remain silent?