‘Some are going to be totally brilliant… and some are going to be set up by mad people’

24th November 2017 at 00:00
When Colin Diamond went for a job interview at the Department for Education, his words about those running free schools proved prophetic: three years later, he was being deployed to Birmingham to mop up after the Trojan Horse scandal. Eleanor Busby reports

Four years have passed since Birmingham City Council received an infamous letter alleging a plot to take over schools in the city and run them according to strict Islamic principles.

November 2013 was just the start of the “Trojan Horse” scandal, which put the Muslim community of Birmingham – and the council in particular – in the national firing line.

“Nobody emerged smelling like roses,” says Colin Diamond, who started working at Birmingham City Council in 2014, before later taking charge of education. “Clearly, the council had a big, big improvement journey to undertake. Some of the basic things around safeguarding, governance, communication, school improvement had gone wrong or had completely disappeared.”

Diamond had moved to the city under the instruction of the Department for Education, specifically to oversee school improvement in the wake of Trojan Horse. “The communities themselves were confused and angry,” he recalls. “Things had gone wrong somewhere along the line [with the running of those schools]. Working with them was difficult.”

Refreshingly frank

Sitting in the historic Council House in the heart of Birmingham, Diamond is refreshingly frank about the city’s challenges.

He insists that the city has since come a long way, but admits that tensions are still bubbling away. Sometimes schools still come under pressure to adopt more “socially conservative practices – whether it’s narrowing the curriculum, whether it’s to do with dress codes, collective worship practices”, he says.

The city council has pushed schools to encourage the teaching of the human rights of all cultures, and to speak openly with children about sexuality. But some parents can find this culturally “challenging”, says Diamond.

And last month’s judgment by the Court of Appeal that Birmingham’s Al-Hijrah school’s gender-segregation policy was unlawful will sit uncomfortably with some parents, especially as there was a feeling locally that the city had been “singled out” – given that other schools across the country have similar policies.

Diamond fears the decision could lead to more parents choosing to home-school their children, to keep their daughters separated from boys.

“It could possibly lead to a little more elective home education (EHE),” he says. More than 1,000 children in Birmingham are now being home-schooled in the city. “The numbers are still going up and we are working very closely with EHE communities – more so than we were a year ago.”

But the council has limited powers to check on these children, which worries Diamond: “As local authorities, we should have a right to see children who are educated at home – and I don’t currently have that right. We think there should be a change of law – and we are told it’s under discussion.”

 

A bill giving local authorities power to monitor the “educational, physical and emotional development” of home-schooled children is currently making its way through Parliament.

But Diamond also wants better oversight of “unregulated” groups such as Sunday schools and madrasas. He says: “I think the biggest risks in terms of exposure to any form of non-mainstream societal values are either if you are at home, because you are not part of the social group, or if you are in an independent school that is at the margins of things, or if you are in the unregulated space, which includes Sunday schools, madrasas, all these places where there is no regulation whatsoever.

“Thousands of kids in this city will go to education spaces this evening and will be there for a few hours, and will be taught about Koranic values or Christian values. We feel they should be regulated. These are classrooms by any other name. I do wish the government would grasp this stingy old nettle.”

He acknowledges the difficulty of drawing the line (“Does it involve music lessons, sports teams, youth clubs?”) But he feels it is important for authorities to know more about what is happening “outside the formal school space”.

‘I knew nothing, really’

Before moving to Birmingham, Diamond led the DfE’s team of education advisers for academies and free schools.

He recalls admitting during his job interview that he knew little about free schools. “They asked me, ‘What do you know about free schools?’ And I said, ‘Nothing really. I guess some are going to be totally brilliant, innovative and wonderful, and some are going to be set up by mad people.’ And that is exactly what has happened,” he says.

During his time at the DfE, Diamond worked closely with former academies minister Lord Nash. “He and I are very different people in terms of our backgrounds, but we had a common purpose to transform people’s lives,” he says. And it was Diamond’s roots in the working-class area of Toxteth in Liverpool that drove him towards a career in education. Although he hated the “harsh and brutal” grammar school he attended, it gave him opportunities that his friends living next to the docks did not have. “I didn’t think I was any brighter than them. I just got the break, you know?” he says. “I wanted people like me…to have that same opportunity.”

Despite being a fan of Liverpool FC, one of his highlights at the DfE was helping to set up Everton Free School. “This was my opportunity to put something back into Merseyside. That was a wonderful privilege. Even if they were the blues in my home city,” he laughs.

It was this drive to serve working-class communities that had led Diamond to his first job: teaching humanities in a London comprehensive. “I am an urban educator, really,” he says.

Social city

Diamond admits that when he worked at North Somerset Council, he grew bored of the “upmarket commuter” community and yearned for a challenge. So is Birmingham enough of a challenge for him? “Oh, hell yeah,” he exclaims. “It is the most challenging thing I have done in my career.”

Diamond’s diary is in overdrive – jam-packed with school visits and council meetings. With 446 schools and 205,000 students – and a high number of EAL and pupil-premium children in the city – there is a lot to cover.

“The job is literally spent from the moment I wake up to late at night, because it is a very social city,” he says. “There are loads of celebration evenings, awards evenings, ‘let’s sort it out over a curry’ evenings.”

So having worked in education for close to 40 years, does he have a career highlight? Diamond fondly recalls seeing former students, with whom he played music at the Camden school, in a jazz club in Stoke Newington on his 39th birthday. “They played Happy Birthday for me and I thought, ‘Oh my god, it doesn’t get any better than this.’”

As his own career has developed, he has stayed in touch with the former pupils as they, too, have progressed in their chosen field: “Two of those guys play in Ronnie Scott’s and I saw them the other year. So it is that kind of legacy that is special.”

@Eleanor_Busby

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