For opponents of Michael Gove’s free schools, recent revelations about one such institution in Derby are proof that the concept is fundamentally flawed.
First, the Al-Madinah school was threatened with closure over allegations that pupils were being segregated by gender and female staff were required to wear head scarves. It was then closed for a week, on the opening day of its first Ofsted inspection, because background checks on staff had not been satisfactorily completed.
Finally, the watchdog’s leaked report described the school as “dysfunctional” after inspectors found “basic systems and processes” not in place and noted the “limited knowledge and experience” of those in charge. Not only is the teaching “inadequate”, but even pupil safety is uncertain.
Damning, indeed. No wonder that the shadow Education Secretary took the opportunity to brand the free-school programme a “dangerous free-for-all”. But while such an interpretation might suit Tristram Hunt’s politics, it is too precipitous a conclusion to draw from a single failure, however egregious.
There is no room for complacency. The high number of free-school applications from religious groups, for example, rightly prompted concern, as did the waiving of requirements for teachers to be qualified. And in the case of Al-Madinah, the latter is thrown into particular relief. Thus, the whole saga only underlines the paramount need for close oversight.
Arguably, though, Ofsted’s unforgiving assessment suggests the regulator is well-equipped to identify under-performing institutions. It must now prove equally effective in either remedying the situation or closing the school down.
If swathes of Al-Madinahs are found, there will then be questions to be asked about the free-schools concept. But so far, there are not.