Michael Gove and the Trojan Horse: Faith groups are still essential for education
It's the story that so many secularists have been waiting for. The story that proves Islam is a dangerous threat to British society. The story that vindicates the view that faith groups, of any shade, should have nothing whatsoever to do with education. The story that says "neutral values" are what our children need to be taught.
But, as is so often the case, once you scratch the surface, all is not what it seems.
In the wake of the 'Trojan Horse' investigation into some Birmingham schools by the schools inspectorate, five now been placed into 'special measures'. Allegations of intimidation, narrow, faith-based ideologies, manipulation of staff appointments, poor governance and the inappropriate use of school funds, are rife. In their light, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has decided to act. In a move his officials are describing as a decisive shift away from moral relativism in the classroom, he has announced his intentions to clamp down and to give all schools the responsibility to "promote British values".
But what are 'British values'? You'll struggle to find anyone who can give you a simple definition of what constitutes them.
Oasis, the charity I founded, is a Christian foundation, which in recent years has become responsible for seven primary schools in Birmingham. Each serves a culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse community in which poverty is not uncommon.
Our logo is the 'Circle of inclusion' – it's also the badge on each of our student's uniforms. It says that each of our schools are places of inclusion and education rather than alienation and indoctrination. Each of our academies is a community school which seeks to serve all, regardless of their ethnicity, faith or background. In my view, no child in multi-faith and multi-ethnic Britain should grow up without a working understanding and respect for the various worldviews that make up our society.
But this commitment to inclusion, equality and respect for diversity is not 'British'; instead its roots are based and built on our Christ-centred ethos. It is based on the example that Jesus set by the generous and inclusive way that he lived, in what was the religiously and ethnically divided society of his day.
Each of our schools has created a happy community in which difference is not only accommodated but celebrated – it is, we believe, exactly this diversity which helps to provide each one with its strength, resilience and sense of well-being.
Motivated by our Christian faith, rather than our 'Britishness', we are committed to providing an inclusive service to each of our communities by serving and respecting all people regardless of their gender, ethnic origin or religion. But, these are not just the values that shape our approach to our work; they are the values that believe need to ensure underpin the up-bringing of each and every child; only then will we build a society that is truly inclusive, tolerant and ultimately peaceful.
Being involved in the education of a young person is a huge responsibility. If any of the allegations that have hit the UK headlines this week contains even a hint of truth, no-one can condone them. But to see this as representative either of Islam or the faith sector – as it is often called – in general would be a tragic and misguided outcome.
The practices in the accused schools are atypical of the Islamic faith. Countless Muslim groups and community leaders have been quick to condemn them and are pouring their efforts into tackling extremism, wherever it manifests itself.
More than that, none of the present investigation should any of this take away from the vital role that countless faith groups play, not just in education but also in wider community development and cohesion. In fact, I believe that it is groups with a religious background that are most likely to provide the moral fibre in the classroom that the government now recognises is desperately needed.
Rev Steve Chalke is a Baptist minister and the founder of Oasis.