Closure of Derby free school raises more questions

Janet Downs's picture
“Owing to a health and safety issue, I have taken the decision to close the school to primary and secondary pupils until I am confident that all children are safe on site.”

Dr G S Wilson, Interim Principal, Al-Madinah school, Derby

The “health and safety issue” which has closed the school follows concerns about the school’s alleged policies on dress codes, food and seating arrangements. This unease raised questions which went beyond hijabs and halal food (see here).

The closure raises further questions. These include whether a “health and safety issue” is the real reason for closing the school. No doubt this will be explained later – the BBC “understands Ofsted's findings were so damning that the acting head of Al-Madinah, in Derby, had little choice but to shut it down immediately.”

The further questions are these:

1 Ofsted is inspecting the school over two days: 1-2 October. But the school is closed to pupils. How can Ofsted inspect a school when pupils are absent? This is unprecedented.

2 Ofsted’s Parent View shows that 85% of parents would recommend Al-Madinah to other parents. This raises questions about Parent View such as how far the views of a self-selected group of parents be trusted. Is it not time for Ofsted to reintroduce the parental questionnaire?

3 If parents overwhelmingly support a school which promotes views contrary to those valued in a free society (such as gender equality), then should parental choice trump these values?

4 If the school remains closed then local schools will have to take the extra pupils. If local academies are full, then the local authority has no powers to direct them to take more pupils. How does the Department for Education (DfE), the body ultimately responsible for academies and free schools, intend to address this problem if it arises?

5  Does this situation show the importance of local authority involvement in all schools?  The DfE can't supervise thousands of schools centrally.

The elephant in the room is, of course, whether the DfE exercises due diligence when it decides which free schools can open. Is quantity overruling quality? This question particularly concerns those faith schools with links to controversial ideas such as creationism. One of these, Grindon Hall, has received taxpayers’ money for new facilities but claims “funding issues” have prevented its website becoming live. But “funding issues” should not be used as an excuse for not doing what is required by law.

The Newark School of Enterprise, a free school planned to open in September 2014, was first proposed by the Everyday Champions Church. That bid was turned down because of alleged links with creationism. The Everyday Champions Church dropped its backing and the resubmitted bid was given the go-ahead. In a strange twist of fate, the ex-Principal of Al-Madinah, Andrew Cutts-Mackay, is the head-designate of the Newark School of Enterprise. He told the Newark Advertiser he had taken the job at Al-Madinah on the understanding it was temporary pending the appointment of a Muslim to the post.

Free schools have been opened in areas where there’s already a surplus. Free schools have been opened even when local people, councillors and the MP are against them. Free schools from the private sector turn out to “require improvement” when Ofsted* comes calling. And now a free school already under investigation by the Education Funding Agency for alleged financial irregularities has closed with Ofsted remaining tight-lipped.

Due diligence appears to be missing.


*citing Ofsted judgements does not imply agreement

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