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Daily Telegraph
23 November 2010

A plan to tackle extremism in the classroom

Those who wish to set up schools in Britain should have to commit to core British values, argues Ruth Dudley Edwards.

children into high-performing Anglican or Roman Catholic schools
Non-believers queue to get their children into high-performing Anglican or Roman Catholic schools because they have no fear they will be indoctrinated Photo: ALAMY

Thank God, or, if you prefer, Allah, that in Michael Gove, we have a Secretary of State for Education who will not continue his predecessor Ed Balls’s policy of pretending that faith schools are all the same. They are not. Some of them turn out well-educated, well-rounded young people who will strengthen our society; others strive to keep the minds of their charges closed by isolating them from people or ideas that might challenge them. Non-believers queue to get their children into high-performing Anglican or Roman Catholic schools because they have no fear they will be indoctrinated. There are few of them breaking down the doors of fundamentalist Muslim academies or establishments run by extreme Protestant evangelists.

In a sensible world, rather than concentrating on bullying mainstream Christian schools to preach secular values, the Department for Education would be keeping a beady eye on schools that encourage intolerance and worse. With the UK under constant threat from Islamist violence, one might think extra effort would have been put into scrutinising schools suspected of producing extremists. One would be wrong. The establishment is obsessed with fairness and terrified of allegations of racism, so little is done to protect children from being taught to hate the society they are growing up in. Under Mr Balls’s stewardship, it became possible for a school of under 199 pupils to be inspected by just one person, who can be of the school’s own faith.

It has been left largely to journalists and to think tanks like Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion to study and expose radicalisation in schools and universities. Last night, Panorama’s John Ware revealed that 5,000 children in more than 40 Saudi Students’ Schools and Clubs in the UK were being taught anti-Semitism, homophobia and other tenets of sharia. Michael Gove promises that his department will extend its remit to ensure it can stamp out such teachings in part-time schools. Mr Gove is the author of Celsius 7/7, a brilliant analysis of how the perverted totalitarian ideology that is Islamism developed out of “a great, historical faith” that has brought spiritual nourishment to billions. Asked to define extremism, he has explained that ''you know it when you see it”.

So on the plus side, we have a Secretary of State who understands the question. But on the minus side, his department is scrabbling for answers. And with more academies and free schools on the horizon, there is a well-founded fear that extremists will exploit the inadequacy of the regulatory net.

This is where Policy Exchange has come in with a prêt-à-porter solution. Faith Schools We Can Believe In is a sane, balanced and masterly pamphlet from security specialist Alice Harber, scientific researcher Dr Elena Schiff, Islamic specialist Professor Neal Robinson and, above all, independent educational consultant John Bald. Mr Bald, once an Ofsted lead inspector, guides the reader through the bureaucratic thicket of colliding acronyms to reveal the incoherence and ineffectuality of both the schools inspection process and the muddled and inadequate laws and regulations which it is supposed to apply.

The report draws on best practices by liberal democracies like Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands which are way ahead of us in grasping this extremist nettle. Among its sensible suggestions are the establishment of a due diligence unit with counter-extremist expertise – accountable to the Secretary of State – to vet those seeking to set up schools and academies and impose on them “a commitment to core British values of democracy, tolerance and patriotism”. This unit’s remit could be extended to cover part-time schools.

Mr Gove should rejoice that for a change he has been brought a solution rather than a problem. Grab it and run, Secretary of State.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards