Five lessons from Derby: The Significance of Al-Madinah Free School

Even if 90 per cent of Free Schools are brilliant, it is not okay to sacrifice 400 children in a process that was obviously foolish from the outset.

Any government spokesperson who says the failures of Al-Madinah Free School do not tell you anything about the wider policy, is entirely wrong. The gaping and problematic holes in the free schools policy have been apparent ever since Michael Gove pushed through the free school legislation in a five-day procedure usually reserved for terrorist threats, and anyone pretending otherwise is being disingenuous.

The government chose to ignore these problems. And now Al-Madinah Free School has taught 400 children for over twelve months in an environment that Ofsted describes as ‘dysfunctional’ and inadequate in every category. The report notes how most of the primary teachers have never taught before and many staff are in roles for which they “do not have the qualifications or experience”.

Over half of the secondary pupils have unauthorised absences and the overall attendance rate is less than 90 per cent. The school did not know how many children have SEN statements. Last year’s budget has not been reconciled. The school is unaware of whether it has a surplus or deficit. On their own, each of these things is exceptionally problematic. That they all co-exist, in one school, is extraordinary.

How did it get like this?

The government will no doubt trot out lines such as “we did everything we could”, “this is the price of innovation”, and “let’s not take away from the great work done by the other free schools”. But those are hollow and irrelevant platitudes. Even if 90 per cent of Free Schools are brilliant, it is not okay to sacrifice 400 children in a process that was obviously foolish from the outset.

5 Lessons The Government Must Learn, & Quickly

1. The application process has always been questionable

The government kept the entire school application process secret. They would not reveal who applied, what the applicants wrote, the evidence they had of demand or staff competence, and the government won’t reveal the reasons why people did or did not get accepted. There is no evidence that decisions were made consistently or rigorously, and the one year battle I have had with the DfE to try and get this information shows a concerning reluctance to reveal this information (I am still awaiting an appeal decision) . But, why?  On the basis of Al-Madinah it appears that at least one problematic school has slipped through the net. Could there be more?

2. The decision to allow ‘anyone’ to teach in autonomous schools will backfire

The government announced during the Olympic Ceremony that academies and free schools could hire unqualified teachers and that those teachers would never need to get qualified. Because of this, Al-Madinah was able to to open a school consisting almost entirely of lay professionals who had no experience of lesson planning, assessment frameworks, or safeguarding. Pleas that the policy change delivered “flexibility” is not good enough. It was blatantly obvious some schools would take advantage and this is the first casualty.

3.  A “middle tier” is needed to support schools in trouble

Al-Madinah is now in trouble – and who is going to help? Free schools are only accountable to the Secretary of State, who relies on Ofsted to give the nod that says they can stay in business. But Ofsted can’t be everywhere. So when things go awry, the school will limp on until Ofsted arrives again (which could be a period of years). And then, once problems are revealed – what happens next?  The local authority has neither the power nor the capacity to help. So who will help the school improve? Or, if the decision is made that the school will close, who will see that it is wound down responsibly? Who will help the students get places in other schools? We know that the DfE is completing ‘monitoring’ visits in the first year of school operations, but we don’t know what the visits involve, what they find, or who is responsible for resourcing necessary improvements. Basically, if a school is struggling there is no clear plan for improving it.

4.  We need a process for closing  free schools

If the government is going to run with the line that “this is the inevitable consequence of innovation”, then it really ought to have a plan for that inevitability. Unlike in the US where most states now issues contracts with very clear quality measures, (so a school will knows the standards it is required to meet annually), the rules around what constitutes minimum required quality in England is fuzzy. There is confusion over funding agreements and Ofsted’s right to revoke a founder group’s ability to run a school. There is no clear line about the length of time a school has to get its quality sorted before takeover, or what processes it must go through. Al-Madinah have already openly questioned whether or not the government is entitled to try and close it on the basis of the current inspection. If these rules are not crystal clear (which I’m not convinced they are), any further action on Al-Madinah could become a lengthy tussle.

5. Who will pay to close free schools?

Even if a free school closes willingly, there is still the problem of contracts. Property rent, computer equipment, cleaning companies. With no contract oversight (and in this case no reconciliation), who is responsible for buying out those contracts? What happens to buildings purchased? State education departments across the US have spent millions on legal bills trying to resolve issues of closure because they didn’t have clear rules decided in advance. I’d have sympathy for the government on this, if I hadn’t been telling them all along that this would happen.

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On its own Al-Madinah is a school that needs help to better provide for the children it serves. Really, I understand that. But I will not lay off using this example as a way of highlighting bigger issues. The government will want to paint this as an accident, or as an unexpected situation, maybe even a minor inevitability. But it’s not. The situation was absolutely predictable and absolutely stoppable. If not completely, at least in part. There was no need to allow schools to have almost entirely unqualified staff. There is no reason why Ofsted could not inspect sooner, and no sense in implementing this policy before a proper middle tier of scrutiny and support was created. That contracts of quality were never thoroughly outlined always seemed weird, but what I find unforgivable is the lack of a transparent opening and closure process.

Politicians cannot tell teachers and children there is no excuse for failure then pussyfoot around when it’s their mistake laid out on the table. This has been a cock-up and Gove, as the person who pushed this legislation through, needs to admit it. If he does, then perhaps we will finally see something done about it.

This post originally appeared on lauramcinerney.com, and is crossposted here with her permission

The gaping and problematic holes in the free schools policy have been apparent from the start. Photo: Getty

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now editor of Schools Week.

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder