In the fight against terrorism, it is not surprising that UK authorities are keeping a close eye on schools — and now Ofsted's chief has said that too little is being done to trace students who go missing from mainstream schools.
Officer for Standards in Education (Ofsted) chief Sir Michael Wilshaw voiced what he called an "urgent and escalating problem" in a scathing letter to UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. In the letter, he singled out three specific areas of concern: the Bradford, Birmingham and Luton councils. According to Wilshaw, these councils are not doing enough to track children who are removed from schools in the middle of the school year. The problem, according to Wilshaw, is that children outside of public schools, whether they are educated at home, in unregistered schools, or independent faith schools, are vulnerable to extremist views.
Wilshaw found Birmingham's ability to safeguard children to be particularly be weak. He said staff in the city was slow to find kids who were missing from school and would just remove the names of missing students from its records. In Birmingham, 253 children were taken off the list without being located between September 2015 and January 2016 alone, according to a Judith Burns of the BBC News. Wilshaw also noted that the Birmingham's children's services department has failed seven inspections in the past 10 years. He said the department in the city has few signs of improving and called it a "failure of corporate governance on a grand scale."
"Despite the appointment of a succession of commissioners to the city, there has been little tangible improvement to the overall quality of child protection services," Wilshaw said. "I am particularly concerned about the failure of these authorities to address the problem of children missing from education and to satisfy themselves that these children are not being exposed to harm, exploitation, or the risk of falling under the influence of extremist views."
Although Wilshaw says the situation in Birmingham has improved since 2014 during the Trojan Horse allegations, he contended in his letter that "the situation remains fragile." In 2014, a group of conservative Muslims allegedly tried to take over a number of east Birmingham schools to teach strict Islamic order, according to The Telegraph. The issue resulted in investigations by several agencies, including the Department for Education and Ofsted.
While things are better in Birmingham, Wilshaw said he still saw "troubling gaps" in the council's' knowledge of the situation. After visiting with headteachers in the area, Wilshaw wrote in his letter that headteachers still feel "unsupported" by local authorities. Headteachers reported "a minority of people in the community who are still intent on destabilizing these schools." Some of these head teachers said there is a "culture of fear" and "overt intimidation" from some in the community. Examples given by the head teachers include: organized resistance to personal, social, and health education (including sex education), belittling comments on social media, and pressure from some parents to change curriculum and staffing.
All three of the councils claim they have already been taking action. Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford Council, said they tightened their processes and "invited open scrutiny" of their practice in the area. Trevor Holden, Luton's chief executive, said the letter was in contradiction to the most recent inspection report.
"We found the comments in Sir Michael's letter to be a surprise," Brigid Jones, Birmingham's cabinet member for children, families and schools said. "In terms of the chief inspector's comments on schools in Birmingham, we note what is being said but contend they don't fully reflect the feedback that we receive from teachers, our education commissioner and the positive views of other government departments on our work on extremism."
Regardless, Wilshaw says not enough is being done. In his letter to Morgan, he claimed council staff is too slow to check the whereabouts of missing children and do not do tough enough checks on kids in home school.
Wilshaw will remain Ofsted chief inspector until the end of the year. Despite concerns by Parliament's education committee, Morgan says she will go ahead with her nomination of Amanda Spielman as his replacement, according to The Guardian.