It is regrettable that so many delicate and nuanced problems are left to politicians to solve. The row over the alleged Islamist “takeover” of schools in Birmingham is a present example. Not only has it given Michael Gove, Whitehall’s most cocksure minister, an excellent opportunity to generally hold forth, it has also allowed him to have an unsightly row with Theresa May. Both ministers exploited a highly delicate issue to gleefully sling mud across the cabinet table. How reassuring that two of our most senior politicians see this most sensitive of sagas as an opportunity to advance their post-Cameron careers.
The thrust and parry of politics aside, Gove is hardly a suitable man to get involved in the ensuing investigation. His style is patronising and high-handed, and he is all too prone to seeing everything as an ideological battle. I sometimes doubt that he can compile a shopping list without considering whether it’s compatible with neo-liberalism. Even as the story broke, he parachuted in a former counter-terrorism police officer from London to lead the investigation, at once royally pissing off the authorities in Birmingham and reacting like a hysterical tabloid headline writer.
This is emblematic of the main failures in our national response to the episode: we are not acknowledging the subtleties of the situation. While both wrong in their own ways, advocating terrorism and instigating a gender-segregated seating plan in an RE lesson are very different problems with very different solutions. Conflating the two and filing them under the catch-all and consistently ill-defined term “Islamic extremism” is inaccurate, unhelpful and inflammatory – and all the more so before it’s clear what has really been going on.
Moreover, the way in which “British values” are held aloft as the solution to all things Islamic is unhealthy. In calling for all schools to actively promote what one suspects will emerge as a list of trite platitudes written in civil-servant-speak, Gove implies that Britishness is incompatible with an Islamic presence in British schools, and by extension, Islam. It fuels the old “us and them” chestnut. Has it ever been suggested that a healthy dose of British values is a potent antidote to Christian fundamentalism?
So what of real solutions to the problem? It now seems that, at least in some of the schools, and to a greater or lesser extent, there were indeed attempts to impose a radical Islamic framework upon operations. What we could very well do without is an expansion of the academies programme, despite Gove’s desire to do just that. In the fragmented framework that his department has created, local authorities are increasingly shut out of running local schools and education is preside over by an ever-growing network of corporations, companies, charities, trusts, boards and “partners”. This can only make it more, not less, likely for aberrations such as this to occur. An unwieldy system is easier to play. If Gove is serious about preventing the spread of extremism and fundamentalism – of any kind – in English schools he should undo those elements of his reforms that increase the distance between local authorities and schools.
In all, the response to this episode, and the subsequent fallout, has been farcical. Many people and organisations charged both with combating extremism and with promoting British values in their work have shown that they are singularly unable to do so. Unless, of course, hysteria, self-interest and rabble-rousing have become an intrinsic part of our national identity.