'Trojan horse' scandal - extreme or diverse?

Park View school Image copyright PA

Where does diversity stop and extremism begin? That, it seems to me, is the central question posed by the so-called "Trojan horse" affair.

It is official government policy to create a "more diverse school system" with academies and free schools liberated from some state controls. They don't have to follow the national curriculum and they operate independently from the local education authority.

A substantial proportion of the free schools created under Education Secretary Michael Gove's reforms appear to have a strong cultural or religious character.

Look in the classrooms of the new "free" state-funded primary schools, for example, and you will find a higher proportion of pupils come from an Asian background (35%) than a white British heritage (32%).

Mr Gove has spoken of his enthusiasm for schools to be liberated from the "moral and cultural relativism" imposed by some local authority educationalists. The education secretary has explained how the freedoms that come with academy status would mean a religious school "can place itself permanently out of range of any such unsympathetic meddling" and be true to its religious traditions.

There is, though, clearly a limit on how far free-thinking can go. "It's a free country and we're not going to attempt to police what people believe," Mr Gove has said. "But we are determined to ensure that those who receive public funding - and especially those who are shaping young minds - do not peddle an extremist agenda."

So, when does a religious tradition become an extremist agenda? For example, would a Christian school that tells its pupils that homosexuality is sinful, be traditional or extreme? What about the free school in Lancashire that includes daily mandatory transcendental meditation - is that extreme?

The inspectors from the Educational Funding Agency noted how some felt the school at the centre of the "Trojan horse" affair, Park View Academy, had "taken the Islamic focus too far". Although it enjoys the freedoms of an academy, it is not specifically designated a faith school, and so the sight of posters in Koranic Arabic "advertising the virtues of prayer" was a cause for concern.

Almost all the pupils at Park View are Muslims but technically, the school is not currently allowed to conduct an Islamic form of collective worship. Special permission from the secretary of state to do so expired last summer which means, by law, it must conduct a daily act of collective worship that is "wholly or mainly of a Christian character".

Incidentally, if Park View had wanted to become a faith school academy, the rules prevented it from doing so. Despite its intake, it was obliged to maintain a default Christian tradition.

Reading the EFA review, it appears almost that the Muslim ethos of a school is evidence of "extremism". The loudspeakers which broadcast the call to prayer, the fact that 80% of girls were wearing white headscarves, the school fundraiser for Syria - even though these were not necessarily a cause for concern in themselves, they were listed under a heading that suggested the Park View Trust schools were not doing enough to promote community cohesion.

But how different is that from a school that rings a bell ahead of hymn singing in assembly, where pupils are obliged to wear caps or boaters, where the school charity is Christian Aid?

"It is vital that we make this distinction between religion on the one hand, and political ideology on the other. Time and again, people equate the two," David Cameron said in a speech in 2011.

"They talk about moderate Muslims as if all devout Muslims must be extremist. This is profoundly wrong," the Prime Minister declared. "We need to be clear. Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing."

The evidence of Islamist extremism in Birmingham schools appears thin. The schools themselves say Ofsted has made "absolutely no suggestion, nor did they find any evidence, that Park View schools either promote or tolerate extremism or radicalisation".

What there may well have been is an attempt by some conservative Muslims to encourage an ethos within Birmingham schools that is true to their religious tradition. But is that very different from Michael Gove's encouragement of parents in Catholic academies to be true to their religious tradition?

If, like 629 other state-funded English secondaries, Park View had been allowed to become a faith school, then one presumes the Islamic ethos would no longer be regarded as a threat to the welfare of the pupils. Conservative Muslims would be no different from conservative Catholics looking to escape from moral and cultural relativism.