What does Al-Madinah say about free schools?

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Image caption,
Al-Madinah free school was closed on the first day of its inspection

Described as "dysfunctional" and "in chaos", there can be no doubt that the problems at the Al-Madinah School go right to its core.

Rated inadequate in all four inspection areas, Ofsted said problems at the Derby school were "myriad".

Not only does it lack the basic structures needed to operate, it is said to be close to "collapsing".

Al-Madinah is the second free school to be put into special measures, after Discovery Free School in May 2013.

A further five out of the 24 inspected so far have been labelled "requiring improvement" - the next worse category. But then it is only two years into the programme.

Across England the latest Ofsted figures show that 2% of state schools are in special measures - 383 out of 21,186 inspections.

But no up-and-running free school has unravelled quite so publicly as this Derby-based Muslim faith school.

It started with claims about female staff being required to wear hijabs, Islamic headscarves, but the focus has shifted to the "unacceptable" level of education the government and inspectors now say it is providing.

'Inexperienced teachers'

The key thing that makes this Ofsted report stand out, is the fact that the findings come just a year after the school opened. Most schools that deteriorate tend to do so over a much longer period of time.

And many of the problems it highlights seem to have implications for the particular nature of free schools and the extra freedoms they are allowed.

The report's second line says: "This is a school which has been set up and run by representatives of the community with limited knowledge and experience."

Education Secretary Michal Gove argued that taking schools out of the hands of bureaucrats would liberate innovators to push up standards through reform and experimentation. But the Ofsted findings in this case reflect exactly what detractors of such DIY school projects feared would happen.

They asked how people who knew little about education could set up and run something so complex and important as a school.

In addition, teaching, which the government sees as the most important engine raising attainment, was found to be "inadequate".

"Many teachers are inexperienced and have not received the training and support they need," the Ofsted report said.

This seems to highlight one of the most fundamental differences between free schools and regular state schools - there is no obligation to employ qualified teachers in England's free schools.

The Department for Education argued that it gave free schools this freedom, which exists amongst independent schools, to enable them to employ industry experts. But this does not appear to have worked in the pupils' favour in the Al-Madinah case.

The Ofsted report said: "Almost all teaching seen during the inspection, including in the Early Years Foundation Stage, was judged inadequate."

It added that most teaching and lessons in the primary school were poorly planned and that teachers did not know how to use pupils' assessments to plan lessons and set work.

Questions are now being asked about how the Department for Education could approve a school for opening one year, only for it to be found to lack the "basic systems" it needs to operate 12 months later.

Were the checks necessary for ensuring the school would be fit for purpose undertaken in a sufficiently rigorous way?

Higher standards

Judging from the pre-registration report undertaken by Ofsted in the July before it opened, no assessment was made by the inspectorate of the school's ability to educate pupils.

But Ofsted did wave the red flag at this stage over child protection measures, saying that four regulations had not yet been met and that staff needed to undertake training on such issues. This was highlighted by shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt in an emergency question in the Commons.

The DfE has insisted that it took all necessary steps to ensure the school was fit for purpose when it opened in September 2012.

It said: "Ofsted recommended Al-Madinah should be registered as long as four requirements were met.

"Ofsted often sets out a number of requirements it wants to see before new schools can open. In this case, [Al-Madinah Education Trust] provided the necessary evidence to show that these requirements were met."


But the report also said the school had "not been adequately monitored or supported".

Prime Minister David Cameron has taken to local radio to say that the school should close if it does not take immediate action to put things right.

But he also said that this particular case should not be used as a "stick to beat the whole free school movement" as these were delivering a better standard of education than most state schools.

He quoted figures hailed by the DfE earlier in the year which said three-quarters of the first free schools were rated good or outstanding - which a spokesman pointed out was a significantly higher proportion than all state schools.

But a check of the latest Ofsted data reveals that a higher proportion of state schools (78%) are rated good or outstanding compared with 75% of free schools.

But Mr Hunt said the education of children in Derby was being sacrificed for ideology.

He added: "It's not just the Al-Madinah School which is dysfunctional, it's the education secretary's free school policy."

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