You can tell when a school is truly impressive within minutes of arrival. And when I crossed the threshold at Hasmonean High School a little while ago, I could tell it was outstanding. The teachers, the boys, everything about the school spoke of a commitment to excellence. There was a respect for learning which permeated the whole school. So I wasn’t at all surprised when Hasmo was judged the best-performing comprehensive in the country by the Financial Times. It is a model school, in every respect.
One of the many gifts the Jewish community has given Britain is a brilliant working model of how to combine respect for religious tradition with commitment to shared British values. Hasmo embodies that gift and also shows us something more — it reminds us, as the Chief Rabbi reminded us in this paper earlier this month, that Judaism is a “supreme example of a religion predicated on education, scholarship and the life of the mind”. The respect for scholarship which our Jewish faith schools nurture sets an example the rest of our educational system should learn from.
That is why David Cameron and I are committed to doing everything we can to support and nurture Jewish faith schools. We want to celebrate their success and ensure they’re there for generations to come.
In acknowledging the fantastic contribution that so many faith schools make, it is also important to recognise that our education system should not be about centralised conformity. In education, one size does not fit all. We need to respect not just the need to tailor teaching to pupils of different ability but also to take account of the particular challenges faced by different communities.
Church of England schools operate in a different way, with a different ethos, from Roman Catholic schools. The excellent Guru Nanak Sikh school in West London will, naturally, differ from Hindu and Muslim schools. Every faith community has schools of which it can be proud. It is because each is different that the proposals floated in 2006 to have a centrally enforced quota system which would have compelled every faith school to admit a set proportion of pupils who did not share their school’s faith was quite wrong. Jewish parents who want their children to be educated in a Jewish faith school shouldn’t lose that right because of a clumsy mechanism to deal with community cohesion which misses the point.
What we do need, however, is a way of ensuring that, where there are real concerns about community cohesion, the state can act effectively. I’ve been asking in Parliament about what’s going on in a minority of Muslim schools where there is evidence that we need to be particularly vigilant.
Last month, the Government gave the Association of Muslim Schools, a group of independent Islamic faith schools, a new right to establish its own separate inspection arrangements. According to its own website, the association has already received £100,000 in government funding. But the association’s deputy chair, Ibrahim Hewitt, the head of the Al Aqsa school in Leicester, is on record as saying that “the word integration doesn’t even belong in a true democracy”.
He has also called “political Zionism a threat to world peace”, and said of “Zionist control of the media” that there is no smoke without fire. He has objected to Holocaust Memorial Day, and he is the UK chairman of Interpal, an organisation under scrutiny from the Charity Commission following a Panorama investigation.
There have been real problems with independent Muslim faith schools before. The King Fahad academy, in West London has used textbooks that describe Christians and Jews as pigs and monkeys.
We need to have a proper inspection regime for these schools. Ofsted has acknowledged that it did not study the details of all the textbooks concerned in the King Fahad case. And of 606 visits by inspectors to Muslim faith schools, only 94 have been made public. The chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, Sir Barry Sheerman, has pointed out that we do not properly know what is being taught in many Muslim schools.
We need to have proper inspections of faith schools where there are concerns by independent figures who are fluent in the relevant languages and aware of the ideological challenge posed by separatist Islamism.
In the past, the Government has failed us here. The man they appointed to look into Islamic extremism on university campuses was someone from the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, a body set up by the separatist Islamists of Jamaat-i-Islami. They follow the teachings of the Abul Ala Mawdudi, who campaigned for an “Islamic State which bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states”.
I hope Ed Balls will take the opportunity to have a much tougher approach than his predecessors to tackle the real challenges to community cohesion in schools and campuses where extremism remains an issue — not least to ensure that boys and girls from the many model faith schools like Hasmo can live their lives in freedom and security.
Michael Gove, MP for Surrey Heath, is Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families