Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Trojan Horse schools and the Clarke report

                                       New school transport, Birmingham style...?

The Clarke report into the 'Trojan Horse' Birmingham schools is really a pretty shoddy thing. (Full PDF here.)

The main problem with it is that it's a prosecutor's narrative: Clarke has a clear sense of what he believes has happened, and picks the evidence to support that narrative. If you think that truth in assessing complex interpersonal exchanges (ie rows in schools) or complex philosophical issues (ie the place of a culture and religion in schools) is susceptible to neat accounts from one perspective, you might be fine with the report. If you suspect that one man's judgment, particularly with the skill set of a former policeman concerned with terrorism, might well need to be tested before being accepted, then you'll want to dig a bit more deeply.

Here are some specific problems with it:

1) It doesn't take seriously the argument that the schools are simply reflecting parental culture.

The main narrative of the report is that schools were taken over by an organized body of activists trying to impose 'a particular hardline strand of Sunni Islam' (p13). Although it notes that it is claimed that such a 'hardline strand' is simply reflecting the Muslim culture of the majority of parents, it doesn't really take that claim seriously. But the reasons for this rejection of the claim are less clear. In particular, despite saying

On the contrary, while the majority of parents welcome the good academic results that some of these schools produce, they do not demand that their children adhere to
conservative religious behaviour at school. Indeed, I received evidence that
this would be supported by only a minority of parents. (p12)

there is no explanation of what such evidence consists in other than a few anonymous opinions. Indeed, Clarke gives at least two reasons for thinking that the evidence for his claim is likely to be extremely weak:

a) he didn't interview or survey parents:

I deliberately did not visit schools; nor did I seek to interview children or their families as I felt this could run counter to my intention not to add to the anxiety that young people and their families must inevitably be feeling (p8)

b) he refuses even to countenance the likelihood that Muslims attitudes will not be the same as those of a metropolitan elite:

Tahir Alam, the chair of governors of the Park View Education Trust told me in an
interview that he believed that Monzoor Hussain reflected the educational attitudes and aspirations of the community. This cannot be right, since it would be absurd and deeply offensive to argue that the Muslim communities of East Birmingham share the intolerant views put forward by those who contributed to the ‘Park View Brotherhood’, and which were
largely left unchallenged by Mr Hussain. (p74) [My emphasis. I'll say more about the substance of the 'intolerant views' below.]

2) It is extraordinarily vague about what is wrong with the 'particular hardline strand of Sunni Islam'. 

The specific charges levelled against the schools are often vague and impressionistic. They are often anecdotal (eg one problem in one school is taken as representing all schools).

For example, in a table of 'behaviours observed in schools' (p122) (and could someone point out to Clarke that (consistently) treating adults as 'behaving' certainly lays him open to charges of distancing 'us' from 'them': we act; they behave) there are two columns that are particularly relevant. 'Attempts to introduce a more Islamic character into schools' and 'Sympathy to extremist views'. Only two schools (out of the 14) showed even the possibility of the latter. 12 out of 14 showed the former. But why should that be surprising? There has been (from the 'opposing perspective') an attempt to raise standards by creating a culture within the school more in harmony with the children's religious and cultural needs. Why should this aim in principle (which is necessarily given the nature of the population from which the schools draw their pupils 'to introduce a more Islamic character' ) anything other than totally reasonable?

A more specific charge is made against 'the Park View Brotherhood':

I took possession of the contents of a social media discussion 
between a group of teachers at Park View School that for much of 2013 was 
called the ‘Park View Brotherhood’. It was initiated and administered by Mr 
Monzoor Hussain, the Acting Principal, and was joined by influential teachers 
within the school. The evidence from more than 3,000 messages spread over 
130 pages of transcript shows that this group either promoted or failed to 
challenge views that are grossly intolerant of beliefs and practices other than 
their own. (p11)

Now the views expressed (how often? 'The majority of the postings are innocuous and often mundane' (p58)) in this group show (allegedly) 

explicit homophobia; highly offensive comments about British service personnel; a stated ambition to increase segregation in the school; disparagement of strands of Islam; 
scepticism about the truth of reports of the murder of Lee Rigby and the 
Boston bombings; and a constant undercurrent of anti-Western, anti-American 
and anti-Israeli sentiment.(p56)

Readers will have to make of the (very few) possibly objectionable posts what they will. Some strike me as simply the sort of banter that you get in online groups (eg about women doing the cooking (p57)); others (eg about separation of girls and boys) an honest attempt to thrash out how to deal with the educational and cultural issues involved in educating boys and girls (p60 Exchange between teachers: 'It is important to teach boys and girls to know how to interact with opposite gender in a healthy manner/Equally important to create an environment that doesnt promote sexual promiscuity). The worst example is the posting of a picture of 'an offensive image of a lavatory roll imprinted with the Israeli flag' (p58). Not nice, but a) an isolated incident' b) welcome to online discussions on the Middle East; and c) welcome to a general anti-Israeli sentiment amongst Muslims. (Can we please prosecute any teacher who tweeted an off colour remark/photo about the Papacy?)

Much more important: no evidence whatsoever is shown that these privately expressed opinions carried over into the daily life of any school.

3) Death by anecdote.

The report is full of anecdotal evidence without any attempt to critique it or examine its evidential value.

The worst example of this is the account given by one headteacher of his troubled relationship with the governors. This takes up ten pages of the report (pp23-32) without any challenge from an alternative perspective. I've had some experience of governing body/headteacher clashes. I know (in a far less charged situation) what the headteacher would have said about the clash. I know what some of the governors said. Anyone who has worked in any organization will recognize quite how difficult such situations are to get a grip on. Certainly, a one sided presentation of a particular participant's views isn't the way to get to the truth.

4) General lack of sympathy with the governors' approach

Michael Gove was widely criticized by talking about the education establishment as 'The Blob'. But there certainly is a pervasive culture among many educational professionals that would be unsympathetic to a) parental influence on a school; b) religious influence on a school. The two opposing narratives in the Trojan Horse schools cases are: 1) Islamists were trying to take over the schools; 2) Concerned parents and activists were trying to take over the schools to improve standards by introducing a cultural and religious environment more in tune with parents' beliefs. Now the actual effects these two approaches would produce in the day to day life of a school might be quite similar on the face of it: it's the reasoning behind it (and the value of the changes) that would be a matter of dispute. The report relies much on the idea that 'no smoke without fire': whatever the individual facts, there is a pattern of Islamicization and criticism of that. But of course! If we take narrative 2), we'd expect  a pattern of increased Islamic 'behaviours' and a pattern of increased 'Blob' reactions. Clarke completely dodges this analysis simply because he is clearly out of sympathy with the attempt to improve standards by digging down deeply into the home culture. A particularly silly example:

. For example, in the teaching of modern foreign languages, pupils were
encouraged to study Arabic to reflect their background and provide
greater access to their religious and cultural heritage (despite the fact
that the majority of Muslim pupils in Park View School are from a South
Asian background). (p50)

So imagine the Catholic equivalent: pupils encouraged to learn Latin. Clarke ridiculing this because we're from a Northern European background.

Why am I going on about this? Because I think, perhaps more than anything we've seen in the past with Catholic schools (who, in many cases, have simply rolled over and swallowed the secular agenda) we're seeing here the culture war in schools in its full rawness. In essence, the parental right to educate children as they see fit and the religious right to pass on that religion in its fullness and depth are being challenged. Of course there are difficult issues here about ensuring (eg) children are fit for the wider society they live in and that civic peace is preserved. But the modern liberal desire to impose homogeneous opinions on a population (eg on homosexuality, on Israel) rather than finding ways for differences to live agonistically but peacefully with each other (which is to say politically) is going both to destroy the real academic gains that these schools seem to have made, and to ensure that Muslims are further marginalized in our society. (And for reasons that, once the present mess has died down, will be found to apply equally to Catholics and other groups that don't toe the line.)

Monday, 21 July 2014

The contribution of Islam to public life

                                                    A future Question Time?

One area of life where I find myself at odds with other people who would normally be my natural allies is in my attitude to Islam. Crudely, I tend to be rather sympathetic to Islam and even Islamophile, while many culturally conservative Christians (a class which I suppose I'd have to sign up to even though of course I'm far deeper and more nuanced than that!) tend to be highly suspicious and even hostile to it.

This is despite, I like to tell myself, no lack of realism on my part. I'm certainly under no illusions about the likelihood of peace and love breaking out in the Middle East. I am perfectly capable of being whipped up about the future of Europe being one of a transformation into Eurabia. I'm even rather pro-Israel. So not really a natural ally of Islam, perhaps.

There's a lot I could say about this. (Perhaps my best attempt so far is here.) But to focus on only one aspect -that of politics in the UK- you have the existence of a large body of devout religious believers in the electorate who share much with Christians and other conservatives, who are members of one of the world's great cultural traditions (see immediately previous blogpost on why that's important), and who are currently under attack in precisely those areas where Catholics also ought to be taking a stand (ie parental control over their children's education and, specifically, a resistance to libertinism). But one of the oddities of this debate (and Islam's presence in the UK in general) is a relative absence of any serious engagement with Islam as an intellectual and cultural tradition that might have a positive contribution to make to British public life. Instead, it is all about toleration ('leave it alone and it won't do any harm') or control ('make sure that bad Islam doesn't brainwash good Muslims'). Scottish Islam is probably even more invisible than English Islam due to a much smaller immigrant population and the stifling conformity of Scottish politics around a 'big state leftism', but despite a number of high profile politicians from a Muslim background, it's extremely hard to identify a particularly explicit Muslim aspect to their public life (eg: none of the MSPs who voted against same sex 'marriage' in Scotland appear to have been Muslim here).

I've been prompted to note this after reading Forbidding Wrong in Islam (reviewed here). In essence, I came away thinking: a) thinking about ethics through the prism of the traditional Islamic category of commanding right and forbidding wrong produces a rather interesting and different perspective on some important areas; and b) the varying teachings on this area represented a worthwhile attempt at systematic reflection which would benefit a wider (non-Islamic) audience. In addition, understanding some of the tensions between different schools of Islamic thought was certainly suggestive in thinking about current issues: for example, given the conclusion by many schools of Islam that the duty of commanding right even by force does not devolve entirely to the state, does this explain the evolution of a sort of community action in the case of the governing bodies of schools rather than engagement in public politics? (Who knows? I certainly don't and I don't expect to see Dispatches tackling it rather than the lack of clapping in Islamically influenced primary schools.) But the relative absence of any sophisticated but orthodox Muslim voices articulating their understandings of (eg) the relationship between the individual and the state is a loss to that thinking about politics that is more than an ad hoc reaction to day to day party politics.

We are rapidly creating a public realm devoid of genuinely different voices rooted in coherent worldviews. As I noted in my last post, any reference to tradition is excluded. Muslims now appear to be being sieved by whether or not they can give soundbite replies on (eg) capital punishment and homosexuality that please the prejudices of an unsympathetic audience. Only by including voices that are genuinely diverse into the political sphere can marginalized groups be integrated into that scrappy, unarmed truce that is the modern state and, moreover, can politics be reinvigorated by some genuinely fresh perspectives rather than just the tired cliches of progressivism.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Eliding the past

                                            Rational thought, religious style? 
'Faith' leaders unite to oppose euthanasia. [Here.]

I've retained enough of a memory of what it was like to be an atheist (or perhaps just enough common sense) to get a sense of how convincing the non-religious will find such an intervention. (Oh, go on, guess!) Indeed, it must have occurred to at least a few of us bronze age goat herd fetishists that, as soon as a sizable number of people hear that religious leaders think this or that, they'll go and do exactly the opposite. Although I hope that some of the proponents of euthanasia have thought about the issue a bit more deeply than this, I've come across quite a few who clearly regard the debate as mainly having a symbolic function in the extirpation of religion: whatever the religious think, they are agin it.

Putting aside the issue of euthanasia, it is quite odd to think that religious leaders of a wide variety of backgrounds agree on their opposition. I suspect that the New Atheists will simply explain this agreement along the lines of 'religion dumb, therefore dumb conclusion', but to anyone else, the agreement of widely different theologies and sensibilities in this area really ought to require a bit more explanation.

Well, here's my best go at it. In essence, we have here an opposition between tradition and modernity. Those religious leaders who oppose euthanasia hold fast to old, pre-modern traditions. Those who promote euthanasia (whether religious or not) tend to reject tradition and embrace the new. So what unites the 'religious' leaders is less religion and more adherence to traditional values.

Modernists have constructed for themselves a closed belief trap: in essence, a way of thinking that prevents them thinking their way out of error. The examples you often find quoted of this sort of trap are religious: 'Doubt is the temptation of the devil, therefore it's important to believe and reject evidence as Satanic.' But the secular equivalent of that are the hermeneutics of suspicion such as Marxism, Freudianism, Feminism and New Atheism that teach their adherents to reject any evidence from the past or from other cultures as tainted by patriarchy or neurosis or class interest or religion.

Focusing on religion for the moment, if you reject any moral guidance 'infected' by religion, you leave yourself an extremely narrow evidence base. Obviously, most other countries are infected by religion outside Western Europe so can be disregarded. Most Western European writers of the past thousand years have also been infected by religion or the reaction to it, so you're probably only safe with Irvine Welsh.

If you then reapply the critical filter with all the other versions of the hermeneutic of suspicion, you won't end up with much that's safe to read or pay heed to. And if you add into that the material restrictions of modern education (reduced patience in reading, lack of foreign and ancient languages, emphasis on utilitarian outcomes) you have some quite difficult fences to climb before you can access any perspective that might provide a serious contrast or check to modern 'chatter'.

Does this matter? Well, it does if you take the view that traditional values are like traditional skills: they embody the carefully accumulated experience of generations about what does and doesn't suit our human nature and condition. I won't attempt to defend such a view here but - unless you're absolutely sure that it's a mistaken view- the very obvious fact that we have systematically constructed a culture which is inoculated  against this sort of wisdom really ought to be very worrying.