News and Comment

Trojan Horse presents a worrying picture of segregation and intolerance in some schools – but others are leading the way in tackling them

Thursday 12 June 2014

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The alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ plot investigation in Birmingham has revealed much more than the fact that there are simmering tensions between two Departments of State about how to tackle extremism. The investigation by Ofsted, and the coverage which has followed, has unearthed worrying questions about whether enough is being done to create more integrated, cohesive communities. Schools are expected to play their part in providing a rounded education to young people, imparting learning to their students about the importance of tolerance, citizenship and equality before the law. Instead, we are seeing evidence that in some schools, pupils are being presented with a very narrow view of how society should work and encouraged to go it alone.

In Birmingham, Ofsted found that:

‘Although the test and examination results in many of the schools were good or improving, the curriculum has become too narrow and pupils are not being prepared well enough for life in modern Britain. It is my view that the active promotion of a narrow set of values and beliefs in some of the schools is making children vulnerable to segregation and emotional dislocation from wider society.’

Research has shown that segregation can be harmful to communities – it can limit the life opportunities of those living within them, and foster a culture of distrust between communities. Extremists are more likely to thrive in segregated and distrustful communities. And as we witnessed with the riots in 2011, deeply held resentment between communities can boil over into major disturbances.

There is little that can be done immediately about the huge structural issues that mean that schools often cater for people predominately from one faith or ethnic group, or that the communities they serve are deeply segregated. Segregation has taken years to take root in communities, it is the consequence of many factors including the state of local economies, immigration trends, housing supply and levels of deprivation. It will take many years more to build communities that are more integrated.

In addition, schools are increasingly autonomous and thus changing the nature of governing boards and leadership teams, and how subjects like religious studies are taught, will take time. The call for more teaching on ‘British Values’ could offer a way forward, but we have been here before with little success.

However, in the short term there is much that can be done within schools to break down barriers between different faiths, challenge narrow, intolerant views that can draw people towards extremism, and build young people’s understanding of, and tolerance towards, those who are different from themselves. In our study for the DfE on tackling extremism in schools, we highlighted many examples of teaching methods and initiatives that bring people of difference together to work constructively or challenge extremist beliefs, including where teachers can facilitate discussions to look at the dangers of extremism. There are also good inter-faith projects, such as The Feast, a charity based in Birmingham which works to promote community cohesion between Christian and Muslim young people. Areas such as Redbridge in London are using Preventing Violent Extremism Home Office money to support training in schools on the dangers of radicalisation and intolerance – with some success.

The lessons from Birmingham will no doubt lead to action. But it will take a great deal of time and investment to resolve the problem of segregation and intolerance in some schools. In the meantime, practitioners should pick up and deliver projects that are proven to work – those which focus on breaking down barriers between pupils, tackling religious intolerance and hate, and building mutual understanding and trust.