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Tories deploy ‘British values’ against Muslims

By Bernie McAdam

After their humiliation in the EU elections at the hands of UKIP the Tories had to do something to reclaim the mantle of Britain’s number one racist party. The answer was to stir up Islamophobia by attacking Birmingham schools whose catchment area has a large Muslim population.

In March an anonymous letter was made public claiming that state schools in Birmingham are being taken over by ‘Islamic extremists’ installing governors and undermining existing school leaders. This ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ plot is now widely thought to be a hoax but has served a useful purpose for the Tories of justifying an Ofsted investigation into 21 schools.

Ofsted actually found no evidence of this plot but their inspections have resulted in six schools being placed in special measures with five accused of not having done enough to protect children from extremism. Ofsted claims that the schools were subject to ‘a culture of fear and intimidation.’ Park View High School, which incidentally had an outstanding inspection report two years ago, had its work “to raise students’ awareness of the risks of extremism” judged ‘inadequate’.

‘British values’

On the back of this Ofsted report, Michael Gove, the most detested Education Secretary in living memory, has declared that schools would now have to promote ‘British values’. The real fear and intimidation that school inspections always provoke amongst staff will now be accentuated by having more ‘no notice’ inspections and ones, presumably, which judge how ‘British’ the values teachers are promoting are.

By using the word ‘extremism’ they conjure up the tabloid press image of bearded men brainwashing school students into setting off to the Middle East, eager to strap on their suicide vests. Gove reinforces this myth by appointing Peter Clarke from the Metropolitan Police, former head of the Counter Terrorism Command, to investigate ‘Operation Trojan Horse’.

David Cameron has now waded in with his idea of British values as ‘freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions’. Apart from the  latter it seem he assumes that other nations are not blessed with these values. And consciously conflating socially conservative Islamic beliefs and practices with terrorism – how tolerant is that?

Muslims might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that xenophobia (unreasoning fear and hatred of foreigners) is one of these British values. Indeed Islamophobia is only the latest variety. Every wave of immigrants to Britain has been subject to discrimination and abuse; anti Irish hysteria in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth, anti Semitism, “colour prejudice” against people from the West Indies, anti-Asian attacks right through to recent anti Romanian jibes of Ukip.

This racism does not spring from a British gene we are born with any more than ‘British values’ do. It stems from our role as an imperialist power that seeks to mould the world in our favour and with an ideology that backs this up. This is not peculiar to Britain but a trait shared with all imperialist powers like the USA who of course have their own ‘American values’.

In fact what Gove wants is to force teachers to inculcate under the rubric of respect for the rule of law as submission to class justice including anti-union laws, meted out by unelected upper class judges. Its institutions are founded on inequality and topped off by the billionaire Elisabeth Windsor and her brood of privileged offspring.

When Tories have the gall to contrast secular values to Muslim fundamentalism they cover up the fact that British schools have never been fully secular, that the churches retain control of many of them and that the academies – introduced by Tony Blair – allow for greater degrees of takeover by all sorts of religious bodies.

Britain is not a majority religious country – a large majority do not regularly attend any sort of place of worship. In a recent Yougov poll in answer to the question are you religious?’ only 29 per cent said ‘Yes’ while 65 per cent said ‘No’. Yet there is a state church – the Church of England – which only 800,000 people attend on any given Sunday and which most people attend only for picturesque weddings and dignified funerals. It is largely because religion does not intrude into most people’s daily life that these absurd leftovers of a bygone era are a matter of indifference to them.

The mania for religious schools is far more to do with the (erroneous) belief that they are better funded, more traditional, and will enable children to “get on in life” better than the “bog standard comprehensive” in the infamous phrase of Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell. In 2000 Blair announced the dawn of the “post-comprehensive era” and his belief in faith schools and academies “free” of local education authorities.

The real “Trojan Horse”

In fact the real ‘Trojan Horse’ we should be investigating is the role of academies and free schools, both supported by Labour and Tories, in undermining a comprehensive and secular education. The promotion of academies has facilitated the role of religious sponsors. It has given them the opportunity to promote a religious agenda even in ostensibly non-faith academies in overwhelmingly Muslim areas. Christian free schools still teach creationism (anti evolution theories).

Academies and free schools do not have to conform to any national curriculum. Charities, voluntary groups, businesses and religious groups can set them up. They are not accountable to the local education authority. They are funded by central government. They do not have to recognise trade unions. Wages do not conform to national pay scales. They represent the privatisation of education and their widespread growth heralds the imminent collapse of our comprehensive system and a huge inroad into secular education.

Gove and Ofsted have deliberately conflated the term ‘extremism’ with religious conservatism. So that gender segregation and call to prayers become evidence of an extremist Muslim agenda. In fact there is a plethora of religious schools right across the UK (mainly Christian) that segregate the sexes, hold regular prayers and inculcate reactionary and anti-scientific beliefs. They are by their very nature religiously conservative. The Tories would not dream of challenging the existence of such schools.

The Tories are hypocritically attacking ‘religious conservatism’ not in general but only when it relates to Muslims. This fake secularism cannot be fought by ignoring the teaching of religion in schools. This goes for those on the left like Socialist Worker that fail to campaign against religious schools in their fear of being ‘compromised’ in their fight against Islamophobia.

It is imperative that socialists and the trade unions fight for a secular education. The only guarantee of equality in education provision where there is no discrimination is under a fully comprehensive and secular education system. This means we have to fight to transfer all private and religious schools plus all the academies and free schools back under local government control.

Religious instruction should not be taught in schools. We should certainly learn about different religions and traditions, as we should ban any form of religious bigotry or racial discrimination. Personal observance and dress should also be respected. But no school that allocates privileges to one faith over another can ultimately provide a free, equal and non-sectarian environment with a balanced education for students.

The Labour Party education secretary Tristram Hunt merely scolds Gove for not acting earlier. He has provided no opposition to the Tories either against their Islamophobia or by challenging Gove’s free schools or academy programme. Labour’s trailblazing academy programme greatly boosted the creation of more religious schools.

Hunt refuses to reverse Gove’s reforms if elected. But clearly the electorate seems to be way ahead of Labour. A special poll for the Observer by Opinium showed that 70 per cent believed that the taxpayer should not be funding the teaching of religion in schools. It also found that 58 per cent of voters now believe faith schools, which can give priority to applications to pupils of their faith and are free to teach only about their religion, should not be funded by the state or should be abolished.

Response

Gove’s attacks have been met with anger amongst staff and the wider community around these schools. The students’ education has undoubtedly been adversely affected by this debacle. The Park View Educational Trust rejects the accusations of ‘extremism’. A Hands Off Birmingham Schools campaign has been set up and ex Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob has been prominent in it.

Birmingham National Union of Teachers has also backed the campaign and condemned the Islamophobic nature of the attacks. Although they do not believe Ofsted is motivated by the desire to defend staff and conditions, they note the wide ranging complaints made by staff on governance and bullying. Over and above anything the Hands Off campaign might wish to do the union has vowed to follow up these claims and provide an effective strategy to deal with them.

Birmingham Area NUT also calls on the Local Authority – not Gove or Ofsted – to deal with the issues in the school and for the Local Authority to organise a Public Enquiry which involves parents, governors, staff and unions. Gove’s solution of finding new academy sponsors is quite rightly rejected.

Of course this should not be treated as merely a local issue. This attack will be rolled out across the country. The unions particularly the NUT must speak out and develop a national campaign against the Tory Islamophobic attack. Central to any campaign must be the argument that the privatisation of our schools is the real Trojan horse which is wrecking our education system. The NUT should demand a fully comprehensive and secular education.

The NUT which has always exposed the nature and role of academies and free schools has to go one step further. It needs to develop a campaign of national strike action against the break up of our comprehensive system. It is not enough to approve strikes school by schools when threatened by the academy road, there needs to be a strategy of national action which also calls for the reversal of the academy programme.

Such a strategy must include building the campaign in the wider community but also across unions. In particular joint action should be coordinated with Health unions in defence of all our services.

Socialists should be loudly and proudly arguing for the end of all religious schools and any independent school outside of our comprehensive system. We should fight for the separation of Church and state.

This is a democratic demand that protects the taxpayers from funding schools alien to their beliefs. It means that children from families of all religions and none can mix together.

It is essential for the removal of religious influence in politics. It is vital in promoting integration amongst different communities in Britain. In effect it is the best means of fighting and winning the battle against Islamophobia.

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