Will a new 'free' primary school in Bradford widen ethnic rifts in the city?

In the final part of his series on 'free' schools, Richard Garner meets its founders
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The Independent Online

Ayub Ismail says the new "free" school he is planning may not be every parent's cup of tea. For a start, children will have to sign up for a week of summer school to ensure they do not forget what they have learned during the six-week break between terms.

That will be a compulsory part of the school year at the Rainbow Primary School in Bradford, which is to open for the first time in September. In addition, there will be once-a-month, half-day learning activities on Saturday – designed to be a "fun" part of the curriculum. Every half-term, too, children will face tests in English, maths and science to show how well they are keeping up in class.

"We won't endlessly prepare children for them," Ismail says."We want tests to be a normal part of school life so they don't build up too much for them. The model we're proposing will be very different from the normal, bog-standard mainstream school. The first two years will concentrate on literacy, taking up a third of the timetable in key stage one for five to seven-year-olds. There will also be a drive to improve writing standards, one of the biggest areas of weakness amongst primary school children, especially boys. It will be at the expense of spending that much time on computer technology."

The motivation for setting up the school, he says, is the persistent under-achievement of primary schools run by the local education authority. He cites statistics showing that 86 of Bradford's 152 primary schools in 2009 were performing below the national average for curriculum test results of 11-year-olds.

"We will not allow children to fail," Ismail says, echoing the kind of comments made by leaders of the charter school movement in the United States, one of the models often cited by Education Secretary Michael Gove as a basis for his "free" school programme. Parents wanting to send their children to the school cite the standards in existing primary schools as a reason for selecting the Rainbow.

"I'm not happy with the schools in the area," says Shahida Khan, who has her eye on the school for her two-year-old son, Mohammed Dean. "I have been to look at fee-paying schools but this would mean I wouldn't have do that." She cites a pledge from the school of smaller classes – no class will have more than 25 pupils – as a key reason for this.

But the Rainbow proposal is not without its critics. Ralph Berry, the Labour chairman of children's services in Bradford, is worried about the impact it might have on community cohesion. He cites a report written by Ismail three years ago for the Council for Mosques in Bradford in response to a consultation exercise over the future of education in the city. In it, he argues that Muslim children may be better off taught in their own faith schools.

"The national average for 40 Muslim secondary schools in England with five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths is 57.9 per cent, 10.3 per cent more than the national average and 21 per cent more than Bradford schools," the paper argues. "What these figures highlight is the problem of the sense of alienation felt by many Muslim males at mainstream school." The paper also talks of pupils facing "religious discrimination; Islamophobia; the lack of Muslim role models in schools; low expectations on the part of teachers; lack of recognition of the British Muslim identity of the students: and disaffection and disorientation resulting from the incompatibility of the values of the school and the home".

"We are worried about the impact the school may have on community cohesion," Berry says. "I want to make sure every kid in Bradford gets an education which stresses the values of community cohesion."

Ismail dismisses the criticism, saying the report "has nothing to do with the Rainbow project" and "was written some time ago specifically for the Council of Mosques". He adds: "We want a diverse school here." Already, among the 200 applications the school has received for places, he says are requests from Polish, Ukrainian, Bengali, Turkish and black parents.

ATL, which is the organisation responsible for orchestrating the Rainbow project, is based in the largely Asian Manningham area of the city. But as a sign of the new school's commitment to diversity, it is increasing its catchment area to cover largely white areas.

Ismail says Bradford's record on providing a diverse education for its children is open to scrutiny, as many schools have 97 per cent of their intake from the Asian community, while others are overwhelmingly white.

Also, as part of its community cohesion specialism, Rainbow will arrange school trips to sites of historic interest around Bradford in a bid to give all the pupils an insight into their British cultural history.

But teachers' leaders in the city are also critical of the project. The Rainbow school is one of two "free" school proposals in the city – the second is for a secondary school put forward by a science teacher, Sajjad Hussain, and will concentrate on providing a traditional academic curriculum for pupils. Ian Murch, from the Bradford National Union of Teachers, disputes that they will both be somehow better than existing state schools. Both will also have new sites – paid for by the Department for Education at a cost of millions of pounds. "The secondary school, in particular, is in the middle of a catchment area where there is also an existing secondary school described as 'outstanding' by Ofsted," he says.

Yet the model for the Rainbow school – which numbers among its supporters the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, the chancellor of Bradford University, is gaining momentum in the region. Ismail is in discussions to open at least two other Rainbow schools, in Halifax and Leeds.

Other 'free' primaries

Eight out of the 10 "free" school proposals likely to get the go-ahead this September are primary schools. Four are faith schools, and the other four are:

The Discovery New School in Crawley, West Sussex, promises to use the Montessori method of teaching, which eschews the rigid concentration on testing and league tables.

The Free School in Norwich, offers year-round education, with childcare arrangements during the summer holidays.

The Woodpecker Hall primary school is being opened by an existing state primary school in Enfield, north London, which has already been declared outstanding by Ofsted, and is now an academy.

Priors free school in Warwickshire, is an existing primary school run by parents after it was closed by Warwickshire County Council on the grounds it was too small.

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