Religious extremism threatens UK education system

Posted by Tom Walker in

Following the education reform under the last Labour government that encouraged the creation of independent academies, there has been a growing concern within Whitehall that the resulting patchwork of autonomous schools has put students at risk of hardline religious beliefs.

The academy structure, which does not fall within the supervision of local education authorities, has been cast into the limelight in recent weeks following allegations that extremist religious beliefs were being imposed on students in a number of schools in Birmingham. Ofsted, which is investigating 21 schools in the city, has already placed one school under emergency measures after its governors were found to have established a madrassa and were organising trips to Saudi Arabia exclusively for Muslim students.

Whilst Tony Blair, former UK prime minister and champion of the academy system, likened the rise of the Birmingham schools' religious extremism to that of Boko Haram - a Nigerian terrorist organisation responsible for the kidnapping of more than 270 school girls - other Labour MPs have targeted the incumbent Coalition government for being "asleep on the job" by introducing reforms to the education system that made it easier for schools to be inappropriately managed whilst simultaneously cutting back on funding for the government's Prevent programme, which focuses on tackling the rise of extremism.

Of the 22,000 state schools within England, only 10% are academies and free schools, however there are concerns that the Department for Education is already being stretched to provide support for the autonomous schools that receive no local authority oversight. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has already signaled his intent to review the status-quo by stating that parents would be "quite surprised to learn that there is not an expectation that a simple, core body of knowledge, a core curriculum, is taught to their children in all schools across the country".

Whilst the government should avoid throwing the baby out with the Bathwater by implementing knee-jerk reforms to what is most likely a relatively isolated incident, it is clear that a more robust oversight framework is required to ensure misguided extremists do not usurp autonomous education institutions. However, the episode does play well into the hands of those calling for a stronger emphasis on promoting British values.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons