Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Stop this chaotic and dysfunctional experiment now

The Free Schools experiment is descending into chaos. In the space of one week, it was revealed that one Free School in Derby was being threatened with having its funding cut off having been described as ‘chaotic and dysfunctional by Ofsted, while the headteacher of another ‘pioneering’ Free School in Crawley resigned from the school she and her husband set up after Ofsted condemned the school’s performance and then described the recovery plan as ‘not fit for purpose’. The Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt wrote to Michael Gove calling for greater accountability and transparency for Free Schools, and saying that ‘a dangerous ideological experiment has been allowed to run out of control’. Then, to cap it all off at the weekend, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it ‘made no sense to him’ to allow Free Schools to employ unqualified teachers and be able to diverge from the national curriculum (as an aside, while we welcome Nick Clegg’s realisation that the policy he voted through is fundamentally flawed, it doesn’t say much for the Deputy Prime Minister’s judgment that it took till now for him to work this out).

So what’s going on? While the Conservative Party would like to dismiss this as a few duds, it is becoming clear that, as Laura McInerny argued recently, what’s taking place is the entirely predictable result of the ‘freedoms’ granted to Free Schools and the policy of railroading them through in defiance of any democratic process.

To understand why that’s the case, it’s worth looking at what happened with the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby in a bit more detail.

A case study in chaos

In September 2012, the Al-Madinah Free School opened in Derby and later that month the local press broke stories that non-Muslim teachers were being obliged to wear the hijab. By the end of the month, further allegations had resulted in the Department for Education conducting two separate investigations and Ofsted brought forward an inspection, on the first day of which the school was closed for ‘Health and Safety’ reasons when it was found that the school had failed to carry out adequate child protection checks on staff. In early October, Lord Nash, the minister for schools, wrote to the school threatening to terminate its funding agreement, effectively closing it, if it didn’t undertake immediate emergency measures.

The reports from the Department and Ofsted were devastating. On teaching standards, Ofsted said that the school was inadequate in every category and ‘dysfunctional’. Pupils were given the same work to do despite very different abilities, while classes were delivered by inexperienced teachers without proper training, sold to parents as ‘industry experts’. Almost all the Early Years Foundation stage teaching was found to be inadequate. The school was also unable to say how many special needs pupils it had in its intake.

The original investigations were launched as a result of allegations of that female teachers were obliged to wear the hijab and boys and girls were segregated in lessons and lunchtimes. Lord Nash’s letter to the governors made clear that staff were to be told that they did not have to cover their hair, and that the school had to cease any practices that had as their reason, cause or effect that women and girls were treated less favourably than men and boys.

Both Ofsted and The DfE identified the fact that the school was appallingly governed. Ofsted found that the school had ‘been set up by representatives of the community with limited knowledge and experience’. Inexperienced and untrained Governors had ‘failed to ensure children were safe in the school, failed to appoint properly qualified staff and as a result had been unable to monitor the school or hold it properly to account. The Governors, Ofsted said ‘had failed the parents of this community who have placed trust in them’.

On every count these are the consequences of the so-called freedoms of the Free School: the ‘right’ to hire unqualified teachers, the promotion of state-funded faith schools operating outside local authority regulation and most of all the flawed governance and the complete absence of democratic oversight.

How did the supporters of the Al-Madinah school ever get approval from the DfE? As we’ve pointed out repeatedly in relation to Oasis and Tauheedul’s applications, the process for getting approval to open a Free School is completely absurd and utterly opaque. There is no genuine, open local consultation, no real coordination with the Local Authority and the dealings between Free School promoters and the Department for Education are clouded in mystery. Once the promoters of the Al-Madinah school got approval from the DfE, there was no way for parents to hold their school to account. If local teachers hadn’t gone to the press, how long would children gone on being treated like this? Who was there to hold the governors to account on behalf of the children, the parents, the community and the parents?

No one takes any pleasure in this. Reading through the Ofsted report on Al-Madinah, it’s impossible to feel anything but deeply sad and angry for the 400 children at this school and their parents. But the fact that the Education Secretary continues to drive forward this policy without regard for any warnings, either before or since this week’s revelations demonstrates just how dangerous he is.

What does all this mean for the people of Waltham Forest?

Education is a big issue in this borough. We know this from the fact that meetings on schools in Waltham Forest are getting bigger all the time. There are a lot of anxious parents out there.

If you are a parent and you are opposed to these schools, we would ask you to help us to build our petition in favour of a Local Authority led alternative involving our community schools. We know that they have a plan to provide a place for everyone who needs it in our community schools and to build a new school that would be accountable to our community.

If you are a parent who has actively supported one of the proposed Free Schools, we would beg you to think again. Everyone wants the best for their children but this is not necessary and it’s not the right way, either for your child or for the others who will be affected by a new Free School.

If you are a parent who is thinking about putting your child’s name down for one of the proposed Free Schools we would ask you a few questions:

· Are you confident that you really know about the people who are going to run this school?

· Are you confident that the proposed school has been subjected to proper independent oversight by the Department for Education? It certainly hasn’t been scrutinised by anyone else.

· Are you prepared to take the risk that your child will not be like the 400 children in Derby?

· Are you confident that you know how you will hold this school to account?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then sign our petition instead and join the campaign for good schools for all our children in Waltham Forest.


1 comment:

  1. Are there similar issues at the community school in Fort Myers FL? How can I find out about things like this? Is there a newsletter or something at most schools?