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.

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.