One of the Government’s flagship free schools - accused of imposing strict Islamic practices - has closed after the first day of an inspection by education standards watchdog Ofsted.
Inspectors are understood to have confronted Stuart Wilson, the acting headteacher of the Al-Madinah school in Derby with a list of shortcomings. This led to him closing the school and sending the pupils home.
A statement on the school’s website said the closure was due to a “health and safety issue” but Ofsted sources indicated it was more of a “safeguarding” issue, ensuring the well-being of the pupils.
The school, which opened in September last year as part of the second tranche of free schools launched by Education Secretary Michael Gove, had earlier faced allegations from former staff members that girls had been forced to sit at the back of the class,
Unnamed female members of staff also said they had been forced to conform to a strict dress code including wearing a head scarf or hijab – regardless of whether they were Muslims. However, the interim headteacher said he had not received any complaints about the dress code and denied boys and girls were segregated in class.
Today, as the Ofsted inspection entered its second and final day with interviews of staff and the acting head as well as scrutiny of its policy documents, it was unclear how long the school would be closed for.
When it first opened last year, the school claimed it was the first Muslim free school in the country to offer education to pupils aged from four to 18. Its first head, Andrew Cutts-McKay, left after less than a year in post.
A statement on the website from Mr Wilson said: “Owing to a health and safety issue, I have taken the decision to close the school... until I am confident that all children are safe on site.
“As parents, you will be informed directly, and on the website, when you are able to send your children back to school. Assuring you we have your children’s best interests at heart.”
However, in addition to the Ofsted report – which is expected to be published within 25 days – the school is also facing an investigation by the Education Funding Agency, which funds all free schools.
A spokesman for the department said: “We were already investigating this school before allegations became public. We discussed the problems with Ofsted and it launched an immediate inspection. We are waiting for Ofsted’s final report and considering all legal options.”
Ofsted said it could not disclose its concerns until the inspection had ended, saying only it had “made some findings and shared them with the principal”.
The school’s doors were locked today with signs on the door saying it was having an Ofsted inspection. A spokesman said he did not know when it would reopen and declined to comment further.
One 39-year-old woman, who arrived at the school with her two sons, aged 11 and seven, said: “We’ve been told the school has been temporarily closed for health and safety reasons. They haven’t told us what they are. They said the school should be open to children by next Monday.”
The mother, who was pleased with the school, said she had been told by one teacher that girls were made to sit on one side of the room and boys the other. “It is not a problem,” she said. As far as she was aware, it was not compulsory for staff to wear the hijab.
Mohammed Ali, whose six-year-old daughter attends the school, said: “It has been one month that my child has been attending this school and just yesterday they give us a one-line letter from the principal saying they are going to shut the school without any reasons. We need answers.