Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Muslim proselytizing creeps into public schools

The Loudoun County School Board is reaching the denouement of a multiyear deliberation about an application for a charter school that has strong ties to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamist. His followers have already started some 135 American charter schools. Their focus is to promote an increasingly Shariah-dominated Turkey.

Incredibly, the school board’s members are studiously avoiding any acknowledgment or discussion of the role of Fethullah Gulen and his movement in the charter school. They have wrestled for many months with a host of problems with the application — such as serious deficiencies with the proposed curriculum, the financing, the management, the teachers and Maryland’s Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School, the school in Anne Arundel County specifically cited as the “model” for the Loudoun Math and Information Technology Academy.

Yet the members of the school board have, to date, been unwilling to recognize that these problems are actually endemic in Gulen-associated schools — including Chesapeake Science Point. These problems are also much in evidence in three Gulen charter schools in Fulton County, Ga. Two of the three have lost their charters; the third — an elementary school — may soon follow suit.

I had the occasion to visit Fulton County last week and talked with several people involved in one aspect or another of its difficulties with the Gulenists. These included a former teacher, the parent of a former student and a local administrator. One thing is clear from these conversations: You simply cannot begin to understand, let alone cope with, the sorts of issues inherent in “Gulen-inspired” schools if you indulge — for whatever reason, be it “political correctness,” sensitivity to “diversity,” fear of litigation or being branded an “Islamophobe,” racist, etc. — in the pretense that applications like the one in Loudoun County can be properly evaluated while excluding from the evaluation process the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the applicants’ manifest associations to the Gulen movement.

Fortunately, the Loudoun County School Board is expected to hear from Mary Addi on Tuesday, in the course of its last public input session on the application for the Loudoun Math and Information Technology Academy. Ms. Addi and her Turkish husband, Mustafa Emanet, both formerly taught in a Gulen school in Cleveland. They have courageously made public their insights into issues sure to afflict the Loudoun County school system if the current application is approved: systematic mismanagement; use of Turkish teachers who are unqualified to teach, do not speak English comprehensibly or both; visa fraud; financial irregularities; chronic deviation from the curriculum and other rules and regulations meant to govern its operations; and so on. These issues have affected other Gulen charter schools around the country. Ms. Addi and her husband have even contributed to an ongoing investigation of the Gulen Movement and its schools by the FBI.

In a letter previously submitted to a select committee of the Loudoun School Board that — to its credit — actually recommended rejection of the Gulen charter application, Ms. Addi wrote:

“According to my husband, in addition to garnering as much taxpayer money as possible, the Gulen movement’s other agenda is to spread Islam though subliminal indoctrinations. More specifically, the mission is to spread Islam by means of the Turkish events such as trips to Turkey, the Turkish Olympics, other cultural events and teaching Turkish as a second language.

“Although the Gulenists are careful not to speak directly about their religious beliefs, it is their hope that by indoctrinating American students and parents with their culture and hospitality, that the students will likewise be more susceptible to religious conversion.”

Such behavior would, of course, fall afoul of prohibitions in the Virginia code barring proselytization in public schools. Like the rest of the Gulen program, however, unless the application is rejected, it is predictable that Loudoun County will find itself wrestling with what other school systems have confronted elsewhere: an entrenched school, indifferent to its obligations and responsibilities — and exceedingly difficult to discipline due, in part, to the Gulenists’ intensive efforts to buy political protection from county supervisors, state legislators, governors and others.

If the mere prospect of those sorts of vexing problems were not grounds enough to reject the application, this passage from the Loudoun County School Board code of conduct should be: “I must never neglect my personal obligation to the community and my legal obligation to the State, nor surrender these responsibilities to any other person, group, or organization; but that, beyond these, I have a moral and civic obligation to the Nation which can remain strong and free only so long as public schools in the United States of America are kept free and strong.”

Keeping our public schools free and strong means keeping them out of the clutches of cultish supremacists, be they of the Turkish Islamist stripe or any other.


Angry clashes at Cambridge University as  French far-right leader Marine Le Pen arrives to give speech to debating society

The leader of France's far-right Front National was greeted by anti-fascist protesters today ahead of a debate at the Cambridge Union.

Marine Le Pen - daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen and who took over the party leadership from her father in 2011 - addressed students at the Cambridge Union debating society about the future of the European Union and French politics this afternoon.

Her appearance sparked controversy, with "anti-fascist" group Unite Against Fascism organising a demonstration of about 200 people outside the famous venue.

Officers from Cambridgeshire Police attended to prevent trouble.

A spokesman for the Cambridge Union Society defended the decision to invite Ms Le Pen, 44, who has been an MEP since 2004.

He added: 'We welcome the opportunity to discuss, debate, and challenge an individual who has had an unquestionable impact on French and European politics.

'Whether you agree with her politics or not, this event represents one of the very few opportunities a British audience has had to directly engage with Mrs Le Pen, who finished third in the last French presidential election, behind Hollande and Sarkozy, and who currently sits in the European Parliament as a democratically elected representative.'

Student Rights, a group supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism on university campuses, called for the university to investigate the decision to invite Le Pen to speak.

In a statement, it added: 'Universities do have a duty to uphold freedom of speech, but they are no place for the promotion of fascist views, and university authorities have a duty of care to their students to protect them from those who would promote hatred.'

The Union Society is well known for hosting controversial speakers, who have in the past included former IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.


Leading British headmasters defend values of independent schools

As the debate about “posh prejudice” rages, the men who will lead the independent schools sector over the next two years enter the fray and launch a robust defence of the values of private schooling.

Independent schools are under the spotlight like never before, and their place in Britain’s education landscape has never been so intensely debated.

It started with the claim by Christopher Ray, the high master of Manchester Grammar School, that private schools were being “demonised” by politicians. And it quickly snowballed, prompting articles, letters and tweets about the existence or otherwise of “posh prejudice”.

Then a couple of weeks ago, Frances King, the headmistress of Roedean School in Sussex, revealed that she was leaving to work abroad and would not miss the “hostility” in which private schools have to operate.

On Friday, the former high master of St Paul’s School, in south London, joined the debate. Martin Stephen, writing in the Times Educational Supplement magazine, said that two of the three main political parties “hated independent schools to the core of their being” and that the third was run by so many public schoolboys that to extend even the “merest hand of friendship to independent schools would knock them into a trap the media are braying for them to fall into.”

Among many parents, the feeling is growing that at a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet, it may be better not to mention that you are paying for your child’s education – that such an outlay is morally questionable.

At the same time, the smooth path from selective independent school to leading university, via straight As at A-level, is becoming distinctly bumpier.

More than half of the members of the elite Russell Group now have a target, agreed with the Office for Fair Access (Offa), in return for charging £9,000 a year tuition fees, designed to boost the number of students recruited from state schools. If places are finite, this inevitably means a reduction in places for privately-educated sixth-formers.

Stepping into the fray is Tim Hands, the master of Magdalen College School, Oxford. The 55-year-old takes up his chairmanship of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents the leading independent schools, in very interesting times.

He will be followed as chairman by Richard Harman, the head of Uppingham School, the £30,000-a-year boarding school where HMC was originally established in 1896.

“It is not a question of feeling sorry for ourselves,” says Mr Hands, sitting in his study, along side Harman, at the £14,000-a-year day school.

“If you have a job like a football manager, then you are under pressure. If you have the spending power of Chelsea, there is going to be envy by the supporters of other clubs.

"That is only natural. Independent schools charge fees. Yes, a third of pupils have bursary support, but we can’t get rid of the fact that people pay.

“But it is not wrong de facto to pay for education. There is a kind of assumption isn’t there in some bits of society that it is necessarily wrong to pay for education, in a way that it is not wrong to pay for expensive holiday, for instance. And I disagree.”

The idea fuelling the “posh prejudice” debate – that independent schools are full of “toffs” – is simply mistaken, according to Hands and Harman. A third of pupils in HMC schools are on financial support to help with days fees which average £11,000-a-year and average boarding fees of £24,000-a-year.

It emerged last year that one third of the means-tested bursaries given out by Oxford University to undergraduates who are from low-income homes went to students who were educated at independent schools – a fact seized on by Hands as evidence that not all pupils who are privately schooled are “posh”.

“There is a tendency for Joe Public to think about independent schools with a 'them and us’ mentality in which independent schools represent toffs and are therefore to be tilted at," says Hands.

"That is not the reality. This school comes out of the grammar school movement. Schools like Uppingham are not about toffs either. HMC is about the aspiring middle classes.”

A raft of leading figures in the Coalition were educated at private school, including David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osbourne, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Andrew Lansley and Oliver Letwin. On the opposition frontbenches, Ed Balls, Harriett Harman, Tessa Jowell and Chuka Umunna were privately educated.

What particularly angers HMC is politicians who enjoy the huge benefits bestowed by the independent sector, but then distance themselves from it or seek to undermine it.

In last year’s conference speech, the prime minister, while referring to the “great school” he went to, did not mention Eton by name.

While Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, made a point of highlighting his education at Haverstock comprehensive school in north London, claiming that his time there had taught him “how to get on with people from all backgrounds”.

“One has to be realistic about the political pressures on politicians,” says Harman. “It is part of the world we live in but it is a paradox that many of our leaders are people who have been educated in our greatest schools but find it rather difficult to make a virtue of that.”

Hands pulls no punches, accusing Nick Clegg of “double standards”. The deputy prime minister is considering private school for his eldest son and recently looked round £23,000 a year Westminster School with his wife Miriam González Durántez.

However, in a speech last year that recommended giving university places to students from poor backgrounds even if their grades were slightly lower, Clegg said that the “great rift” between the best schools, most of which are private, and the schools ordinary families use was “corrosive”.

Hands says: “On the one hand there’s personal support for the independent sector by sending one’s own child into it. On the other there is a political interference in higher education by trying to limit the number of independent school pupils going to top universities.

“Worse, this interference is based on inaccurate statistics and questionable research. So it is rather a case of the left hand claiming not to realise what the right hand is doing – Nick Clegg’s actions and his language smack of double standards.

"If you want to find something corrosive, then you only need to look as far as political interference in the academic integrity of university admissions.”

The mixed messages coming from the Coalition make it difficult for the sector to “know where it stands”, according to Hands.

Despite this, HMC is confident about its power to influence the education landscape. In a recent interview Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said the techniques used by private schools to push bright children and talented sports stars should be emulated by state schools. In the 2012 Olympics, for instance, more than a third of British medal winners in the 2012 London Olympics were from private schools.

Sir Michael also praised the sector’s commitment to developing pupils characters – its concentration on pastoral care and extra-curricular activities that help to fuel outstanding academic results.

In last summer’s A-levels, almost a third of privately educated teenagers gained straight As, compared to one in 10 of state school pupils.

Some 18 per cent of A-level entries from independent schools received A* grades compared to a national average of 8 per cent. At GCSE, 31 per cent of private school entries gained an A* compared to a national average of 7 per cent.

Harman makes the point that successive governments have accepted the virtue of the “autonomy” of schools, making it the backbone of the academies programme.

He takes it as a tribute to the private sector that the notion of “independence”, even a partial one, is becoming embedded as education orthodoxy.

Links between the private sector and England’s 23,000 state schools are at record levels and when the two sectors speak in a united and loud voice, mountains can be moved – as was evident with Michael Gove’s back down over GCSE reforms. The next battle is improving exam boards’ record on the quality of examiners and marking.

Hands cites a recent book, Everyday Life in British Government by Rod Rhodes, an Australian academic and Professor Emeritus of politics at Newcastle University, which claims that during the A-level crisis of 2002 – when grades were “fixed” because the pass rates in Labour’s new modular A-levels were deemed too high – it was the intervention of HMC that swung the balance with the press and the public and lead to the downfall of Estelle Morris, the then Labour education secretary.

“That is the virtue of the sector,” says Hands. “Its ability to say what it wishes and what it thinks is best for young people. Opinion polls show that the majority of people would send their child to an independent school if they could. That means that when independent school heads speak out, the public is very prepared to listen.

“That’s the whole historic basis of HMC – it’s what we actually started for – to stand up for the rights of children over the long arm, and sometimes dead hand, of government.”

His comments do not quite amount to a threat, but they do suggest that whether it be on university admissions or sloppy marking, independent schools heads will be raising their heads above the parapet – even if it means they become a target.


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