The Department for Education — inept or nasty?

Is the Department of Education inept or is it nasty? Is it thoughtless and inconsiderate or is it, worse, callous and cruel? Has it taken its eye off the ball or is it, much more seriously, contemptuous of its legal and ethical duties to have due regard for the consequences of its actions and policies? Is it guilty not only of errors of judgement but also of deceit and bad faith?

These questions are about individual ministers and, at all pay-grades, civil servants. Also they are about systems, routines, procedures, habits, ways of doing things, and not doing things. And they are about the collective mindsets which underlie the DfE’s organisational culture – they are not only about racist actions, for example, but about institutional racism as well. And they of course apply not only to the DfE itself but also to agencies set up by and accountable to the DfE, for example the National College for Teaching and Leadership (ACTL), and to external consultants and advisers whom the DfE and its agencies from time to time engage, for example lawyers and legal teams for specific cases.

In the present context these questions arise from consideration of how, over the last three years, the DfE has handled and mishandled the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham. The latest twist in this tangled and tortuous saga occurred on 30 May 2017, and was summarised with headlines such as Trojan Horse case against five Birmingham teachers thrown out by tribunal (Daily Telegraph) and Five teachers accused in Trojan horse affair free to return to classroom (Guardian).

A panel looking into allegations against some headteachers and other senior teachers had transferred its attention to the behaviour of the DfE itself, and had referred to repeated failures on the part of government lawyers to share crucial evidence that could have been of substantial assistance to the headteachers’ case, and that could have radically undermined the DfE’s own case. (Also, incidentally, the transcripts might well have confirmed what many observers suspected, which is that an earlier inquiry, the so-called Clarke inquiry, has been amateurish and improper in the way it was and was not conducted.) This was not merely a technicality of slight importance but, on the contrary, an abuse of justice whose seriousness was such that the panel had had no option but to end the hearings.

‘It is fundamental to the proper administration of justice,’ the panel pointed out, that an investigation such as the one it had been conducting ‘must be able to rely on the regulatory authority [namely, in this instance, the NCTL, set up by the DfE] acting in a way which ensures the integrity of the process.’ It continued: ‘There has been an abuse of the process which is of such seriousness that it offends the panel’s sense of justice and propriety.’

The panel also considered there had been a ‘lack of candour and openness’ by the DfE and ‘a lack of cooperation in assisting the panel to get to the bottom of what happened’. Serious errors had been far-reaching, it said, and had extended over the entire life of the case.

‘Such failures arise out of decisions which were consciously made,’ the panel declared, but also it considered that the DfE’s deliberate decision to withhold essential evidence represented ‘an extraordinarily serious error of judgment as opposed to bad faith’. The DfE had been inept, the panel in effect concluded, but not nasty.

However, is the distinction between being inept and being nasty really so very clearcut? Is it helpful, in instances such as this, to distinguish between errors of judgement on the one hand and bad faith on the other? Neglect and negligence can be criminal, not just bad manners or administrative oversights, and can cause real and lasting harm to certain individuals, and to the contexts in which individuals interact and have their being.

‘Without scheming to do wrong, or to make others unhappy,’ said Jane Austen two hundred years ago, ‘there may be error, and there may be misery. Thoughtlessness, want of attention to others’ feelings, and want of resolution, will do the business.’

It is almost certainly the case in the present instance (though not argued or even suggested by the Trojan Horse tribunal) that the DfE’s errors were in part or even largely due to hostility towards Islam and Muslims, and to callous indifference towards the misery for Muslims it was itself causing.

Did institutional racism and Islamophobia underlie not only the DfE’s careless conduct at the disciplinary tribunal but also how it perceived and reacted to the Trojan Horse forgery in the first place? Did racism and Islamophobia underlie the amateurish reports which the DfE in due course sponsored? Did they deeply affect the flawed Prevent and British Values projects which it then promoted, and zealously promotes still? Does the DfE realise, really realise, that the rule of law applies to itself as well as to everyone else?

Well, those are questions for thorough investigation at another time and in another place. In the meanwhile profound sympathy is due to the individuals, schools, families and communities in Birmingham that have been harmed over the last three years by the actions and non-actions of the DfE, and much corrective and restorative work needs to be done.

Robin Richardson, 1 June 2017, slightly updated 2 June

Notes

There is further information about the panel’s statement in news items by John Dickens in Schools Week, and Richard Adams in the Guardian, both on 30 May:

http://schoolsweek.co.uk/trojan-horse-nctl-drops-disciplinary-case-against-5-teachers/

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/may/30/trojan-horse-tribunal-five-birmingham-teachers-islam

The panel’s statement itself is published in full at <a https://www.matrixlaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Panel-decision-and-reasons-on-behalf-of-the-Secretary-of-State-for-Education-in-respect-of-applications-for-the-proceedings-to-be-discontinued.pdf

There is an interesting legal opinion of the panel’s statement at >https://lawyerwatch.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/cryptic-trojan-who-takes-responsibility-if-disclosure-is-the-achilles-heel/

There is substantial discussion of the Trojan Horse affair and related issues in British Values and British Identity: muddles, mixtures and ways ahead by Robin Richardson, London Review of Education, autumn 2015. It can be read at http://www.insted.co.uk/london-review-education.pdf

Equalities and British values

There has been much talk in recent months about ‘fundamental British values’ – FBV for short. A substantial symposium on this topic traces the origins of FBV in highly dubious and controversial counter-terrorism policies and measures, and reviews the criticisms of it that have been made by practitioners and observers. Also, the symposium quotes some of the criticisms that have been made of the simplistic and damaging way Ofsted has been approaching FBV, and the muddled, confused and confusing ‘guidance’ that has been issued by the Department for Education.

The symposium has been compiled by Robin Richardson and Bill Bolloten and will be published in late January 2015 in the journal Race Equality Teaching (RET). A copy of the whole journal can be purchased at a much reduced price if ordered before 15 January. Details of this offer are at http://ioepress.co.uk/books/race-equality-teaching/ret-special-issue-323/

The editorial introduction to this issue of RET urges that the Department for Education should make itself compliant with its duty under the Equality Act 2010 to publish specific and measurable objectives. The DfE rightly declares the rule of law is a fundamental value underlying British society. But in relation to the Equality Act the DfE itself flagrantly ignores what the rule of law requires.

Ofsted, at least, until recently observed the rule of law in relation to the Equality Act. But, as pointed out in a further editorial article in the new issue of RET, it no longer publishes guidance to inspectors about what the law requires and it is therefore no longer transparent. This is both unfair and unhelpful, and may be open to legal challenge.

There are then several articles about the training needs of teachers. Gus John writes about the need for teachers to be thoroughly familiar with the work and influence of Black authors and activists; Sarah Soyei about the importance of knowing one’s own standpoints and biases; Sue Sanders about the dangers of either/or thinking; Kate Hollinshead about clarity of language; and Bethany O’Reilly about the need for teachers not only to learn but also to unlearn.

Of course, it’s not only teachers who have much to unlearn in relation to equalities. Political leaders need to unlearn too. And so, argues this special issue of Race Equality Teaching, do Ofsted and the Department for Education.

Race Equality Teaching is published by the Institute of Educatiion, London. Normally it is available only on a subscription basis, and individual subscriptions are £39 for three issues each year. But in this instance the Institute is offering copies for just £5 each, plus postage, if ordered before printing starts on 15 January 2015. There’s a link to an order form at http://ioepress.co.uk/books/race-equality-teaching/ret-special-issue-323/.

Islamophobia 10 – Theme Parks 0

A day out at a theme park or amusement park, usually with your family but sometimes with your school or a youth organisation, is a happy experience for millions of children throughout the world. Developed from the travelling and seasonal fairs of a previous age, theme parks dramatise the features of a relaxed society – people of all ages are there together, and so are people from all walks of life and all ethnicities, and there’s a vast choice of enjoyable and educational activities in which to share. You enjoy your own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and you’re relaxed and pleased that lots of other people are enjoying their lives and freedoms too. Everyone’s ’Us’, no one’s ‘Them’.

Recently the Muslim Research and Development Foundation (MRDF), based in East London, announced plans for a families day out at Legoland, the famous theme park near Windsor. What? A Muslim organisation wanting its children to enter and enjoy public space? In the eyes of the Daily Mail, that would never do. The Mail requested its columnist Richard Littlejohn to rubbish the whole idea. Littlejohn’s article was entitled ‘Jolly Jihadi Boy’s Outing to Legoland’ and appeared on 18 February. It was illustrated with large pictures of Abu Hamza and Omar Bakti Mohammed, allegedly respected and extolled by the MRDF, and it consisted of a spoof timetable for the day as a whole.

The timetable contained one vile Islamophobic trope or stereotype after another. In a nutshell, the day would consist essentially of instruction in the ways and methods of terrorism and would, for example, teach children how to disguise Semtex as Lego bricks and to chant in unison ‘Death to America, Death to Jews’. It would culminate in a fireworks display featuring remote-controlled planes made of Lego being flown into a scale model of the TwinTowers, similarly made of Lego. Interweaving with such glorifications of terrorism there would be times of prayer, to remind the children that terrorism has God’s blessing.

There are reports in the media today (27 February) that MRDF’s day at Legoland has been cancelled. A statement from Legoland explains that this follows from advice given by Thames Valley Police in the light of threatening phone calls, emails and social media posts. ‘These alone have led us to conclude that we can no longer guarantee the happy fun family event which was envisaged, or the safety of our guests and employees on that day,’ says the statement, ‘which is always our number one priority.’

There have been protests against the Mail’s outrageous behaviour, but so far these have been almost entirely from Muslims. Barely a whisper has yet been heard from opinion leaders in other faith communities, or from society more generally. But hopefully the voices of non-Muslims will be raised, and hopefully Legoland and Thames Valley Police will change their minds about caving in to the criminal phone-calls which have been made. But will the Mail apologise for the damage it has done and will it pledge not to do anything similar again? Judging by its coverage of the cancellation, no. It writes about the cancellation as if it has nothing at all to do with its own obnoxious and unethical behaviour.

 For more information

Littlejohn’s vile article is at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2561686/LITTLEJOHN-Jolly-Jihadi-Boys-Outing-Legoland.html

Muslim responses to the article are outlined at http://tellmamauk.org/tag/richard-littlejohn/.

There’s an article by Roy Greenslade about the episode at http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2014/feb/21/islam-dailymail.

There’s coverage of Thames Valley Police’s claim it cannot guarantee people’s safety from Islamophobic extremists at, for example, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-26351500.

The Mail’s own coverage of the cancellation, making no reference to its own part in inciting criminal phone calls, is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-26351500.

There are general discussions of Islamophobia in the media at http://www.insted.co.uk/islam.html.

Guidance for schools on equalities

Thanks to Kate Green (shadow minister for women and equalities) for her fiercely forthright response on 12 September to the government’s review of the public sector equality duty (PSED) ‘This,’ she said, ‘was an unnecessary and wasteful exercise in PR by a government which is turning the clock back on equalities.’ Referring to the committee that produced the report on the PSED she noted it ‘seems to have endorsed a “do as little as possible” approach to promoting equality, at a time when disabled people, women, black and ethnic minority groups are being hit especially hard by this government.’

Similar concerns and criticisms have been expressed on the websites of the TUC, Left Central, the Disability Rights Alliance and the Glasgow-based Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. ‘The real problem with the duty,’ says the TUC comment, ‘is not “red tape overkill”, as the chair told the Telegraph, but a lack of awareness, resources, staffing, leadership and enforcement capacity to make the duty work properly.’

A brief blogpost published today expands on this with particular reference to the education system. It says that bespoke guidance for schools needs to explain the PSED’s three core concepts – discrimination, equality of opportunity and fostering of good relations – and the general duty of due regard. It needs also to explain how the two specific duties (publishing information and publishing measurable outcome-focused objectives) underpin and give substance to the general duty. It should take into account the excellent research recently undertaken for the government equalities office (GEO) by NatCen.

The blogpost published today was drafted by Bill Bolloten, Sameena Choudry, Gillian Klein, Berenice Miles and Robin Richardson, drawing on thoughts, concerns and ideas from many others. It can be read at
Confronting the Government on Inequalities –pre-conference memorandum to the opposition

‘Let’s cut out equality’

On Friday 6 September a new report crept out from the government equalities office (GEO). It emerged without the company of an official press release and the only media coverage on that day was in the Telegraph and the Mail. Both these papers had apparently been influenced by a private, off-the-record briefing about how the authors of the report (or, anyway, some of them) want equalities legislation to be trivialised, ridiculed and dismissed. ‘How many lesbians have you disciplined?’ asked the headline about the report in the Mail. The headline was followed by a summary of the report which it purported to be describing: ‘Pointless red tape condemned in new report into how public bodies have become obsessed by equality’.
‘Equality,’ writes the chair of the steering group which produced the report, ‘is too important to be tied up in red tape. Let’s cut it out.’ From a grammatical point of view, he speaks more frankly than he intends, for the word ‘it’ in ‘let’s cut it out’ refers grammatically to equality not to red tape. This is only one of many examples in the report of careless phrasing, checking and proof-reading. The cumulative effect is to imply the group which produced the report does not understand what equality is, and does not care. They do know, though, that they don’t like it, and don’t want it. What they want is to cut it out.
The report is an extremely amateurish, ignorant and inadequate piece of work. Some first thoughts about it (http://leftcentral.org.uk/2013/09/10/lets-cut-out-equality-the-independent-steering-groups-report-of-the-public-sector-equality-duty-psed-review-september-2013-2/#more-3703) mention seven of the more obviously unsatisfactory features. These and other features will no doubt be examined by a range of specialist organisations in the coming weeks and months. It will also be appropriate to acknowledge, more than do these first thoughts, that the report contains points that are sound and sensible, and recommendations that should be acted on.

Equalities and accountability

The pupil premium grant is a flagship government scheme for tackling the gap in education between rich and poor. Also, it has potential for reducing other kinds of inequality as well, for example inequalities to do with disability, ethnicity, gender, race and religion. Next week it will be praised and celebrated at a prestigious awards ceremony in Whitehall. Forty-eight schools have been named and acclaimed.

However, according to research published this week, almost three quarters of these 48 schools have failed to comply fully with regulations relating to accountability. And more than four fifths of them appear to have ignored or misunderstood regulations about accountability in the Equality Act.

‘Take it,’ said Nick Clegg in 2011 when introducing the new grant to headteachers, ‘and use it as you see fit.’ He added a stern warning: ‘But know that you will be held accountable for what you achieve.’ The basic principle he was expressing – local freedom combined with public accountability – is central in the coalition government’s public discourse across a wide range of public policy. The same principles of transparency and accountability underlie the Equality Act’s specific duties. It is worrying that so many schools seem to be indifferent to them, and that the government seems to be turning a blind eye.

There is a brief article about the research at http://leftcentral.org.uk/2013/07/02/equalities-and-accountability-the-pupil-premium/. There is a press release about it at http://www.insted.co.uk/pupil-premium.pdf.

Equality duties and equality challenges

Today (19 April) is the closing date for submitting views and responses to the government equalities office (GEO) in connection with their review of the public sector equality duty (PSED). The Insted submission to the GEO can be read at http://www.insted.co.uk/equality-duties.pdf.

In summary, Insted says the equality duty and related guidance are not yet well understood in the education sector, and that therefore there is a need for clearer guidance and more helpful support on a range of conceptual and practical matters. The existence and location of guidance and support need to be more effectively publicised, and greater leadership needs to be exercised on these matters by central government, by local authorities, and by academy chains. The document is particularly critical of the Department for Education. The DfE’s guidance documents for schools are misleading and inadequate, and in its own practice the DfE has so far failed to comply satisfactorily with the requirements of the Equality Act’s specific duties. By being non-compliant, it sets a very poor example to the education sector as a whole.