Free schools 'divisive' says Manchester anti-extremism tsar

By Michelle Murphy
BBC News

Image caption,
Ian Fenn converted to Islam 20 years ago

A Manchester head teacher, who is the city's anti-extremism tsar, has criticised free schools claiming they are "divisive".

Ian Fenn, of Burnage Media Arts College and the city council's secondary schools adviser on tolerance, said free schools hampered understanding.

A free school is state funded but set up by parents or community groups and independently run.

Eight will open in the autumn after Parliament passed legislation in 2010.

'Blot on landscape'

Mr Fenn, who converted to Islam 20 years ago, said: "They are a blot on the landscape.

"They don't have to employ real teachers. They're not bound by the national curriculum and it's an affront to the teaching profession for people to think that schools can be run by people who know nothing about it.

"It's a bit like me saying I'm going to start up a hospital because I fancy wearing a stethoscope - it's ludicrous."

Since agreeing to his role in June 2009, Mr Fenn has offered confidential advice to other Manchester heads on dealing with extremist behaviour and has introduced a travelling theatre project to highlight the dangers of cultural intolerance.

As the former head of an independent Muslim school in Manchester, he believes he has an understanding of how schools operate outside the state sector.

"I went there because I thought Muslims aren't succeeding in Manchester and I thought let's get them into universities and educate them so they get into positions of power so that society better reflects the population.

"When I came back into the state sector it became clear to me that this is where we should be making citizens of the future and although we are a majority Muslim school, we have a very diverse population with 33 different languages spoken.

"If you've got free schools, then a particular characteristic, be it white middle-class, Shia Muslim, born-again Christian, then you're setting up silos of mutually exclusive populations, who won't be able to connect with each other, who won't be able to converge in the way that I think we need to.

"It is ultimately divisive and does nothing to add to understanding and tolerance, which is the real route to ridding society of extremism."

A spokesman for the DfE said: "All free school proposers will be subject to due diligence checks. We will not accept any proposal where we have concerns about the people behind the proposal or if we think the school will undermine British democracy."

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