How to deal with Islamist extremism is one of the great issues of our time. What has gone on in these Birmingham schools is a reminder of how real a threat it is to this country and how determined the proponents of this warped worldview are.
But before we turn to that question, a quick reflection on the politics of today’s events in the Commons: The row between Michael Gove and Theresa May over how to approach this issue resulted in the Education Secretary having to apologise and May having to jettison one of her special advisers. It was a major political embarrassment to the government. Labour tried to capitalise on this by having May appear before Gove’s statement on the Birmingham schools.
In a two and a quarter hours, though, Labour didn’t inflict anymore political danger on May and Gove. May simply didn’t answer the question of who authorised ministerial correspondence being published on the Home Office website. But the initial Labour backbench questions were so disorganised that May was allowed off the hook. It was another example of Labour not doing the basics of opposition well. By contrast, Tory backbenchers were primed with a slew of supportive questions for May.
Gove was also keen to show that he agreed with May, nodding as often as possible during her statement and leaning over to congratulate her at the end of it. May, though, did not return the favour. She got up to move places rather than sit next to Gove at the end of her statement only to be told to sit down by Pickles.
On the substance, I think the first thing to say is that if there was no plot to take over these schools it is even more alarming what has happened. If what went on in Birmingham — with primary school pupils been warned in assembly about the dangers of white prostitutes — is happening organically then we have an even bigger problem than we thought we did. (Also, this debate isn’t about faith schools — none of the schools concerned are faith schools)
Gove is proposing that the answer to this problem is to require schools to positively promote British values. There is merit to this idea. But it will require British values to be spelled out in a sufficiently robust fashion. Indeed, I suspect that it is the commitment to no notice inspections that will prove more significant. Schools will no longer be able to hide their true identity from Oftsed.
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