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Al-Madinah Free School

Volume 568: debated on Thursday 17 October 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the failings of the Al-Madinah free school revealed in the Ofsted inspection report.

I welcome this opportunity to make a statement on the Al-Madinah free school, and I apologise to the House for the absence of the Secretary of State, who is abroad. We have received the letter that the hon. Gentleman sent to the Secretary of State on 15 October, raising issues relating to that school, and Lord Nash and I will respond to it shortly.

The Al-Madinah free school serves children and young people between the ages of 4 and 16 in the Derby city community, and it has been open for just a year. After a steady start by the school we became aware of potential breaches of the conditions in its funding agreement late this summer, and at the end of July we began a wide-ranging investigation into the financial management and governance of the school. We investigated whether it was delivering on its commitment to be inclusive, and we investigated allegations about the imposition of a dress requirement on female members of staff. Our investigations did indeed find significant and numerous breaches of the conditions in the school’s funding agreement, and our concerns were such that we requested Ofsted to bring forward its planned inspection.

The Ofsted report is published this morning. It found that the school is dysfunctional, and inadequate across every category of inspection: achievement of pupils; quality of teaching; behaviour and safety of pupils; and leadership and management. We were already taking decisive action before we received the Ofsted report. Lord Nash wrote to the chair of the trust on 8 October, following the previous investigations, and set out all the requirements for the trust to take swift and decisive actions to deal with the serious concerns. We have been clear with the trust that failure to do so promptly will result in the school’s funding being terminated. We have also been clear that the trust must address all the breaches identified. We will not let any school, whether a free school, an academy, or a local authority school, languish in failure. The Ofsted report confirms that we are taking the right actions. We are not prepared to allow a school to fail its parents, its children and its community. We said we would take swift action in these cases, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Today’s Ofsted report exposes the fact that the Government’s free school programme has become a dangerous free for all, an out-of-control, ideological experiment that has closed a school, leaving 400 children losing an entire week of learning. It is a devastating blow to the Education Secretary’s flagship policy, and reveals that pupils have been failed on every possible measure. Parents will want to know why the Education Secretary has allowed that to happen.

Contrary to what the Minister said, in a pre-registration report in July 2012, Ofsted deemed the school to be failing to meet basic child protection standards, even before it was opened. Why did Ministers not act on those concerns before signing a funding agreement for the school? Why have Ministers allowed a school to be run by large numbers of unqualified staff? Why have Ministers sanctioned “dangerous levels” of safety and behaviour, and why have they allowed children with special educational needs to be left to struggle? In a city where every child needs to be supported and educated to the highest possible level, the Education Secretary has sacrificed learning for ideology. It is not just Al-Madinah school that is dysfunctional; it is the Education Secretary’s free schools policy.

The support of the Labour party for free schools did not last long, did it? I do not know how the hon. Gentleman has the nerve to come to the House. On Sunday he was going around television studios and saying that Labour was shifting its position on free schools. He said:

“We will keep those free schools going”.

Within the same set of Department for Education press cuttings in which he announced he was shifting his position in favour of free schools, we find a headline stating that Labour now plans to rein in free schools. It is complete and utter incoherence from the hon. Gentleman, and he should be ashamed.

Let me respond in detail to every single serious point the hon. Gentleman made—it will not take very long—and go back over what has happened in Al-Madinah school and the scrutiny to which it has been subjected. The school opened in September 2012. It had a pre-registration Ofsted report, as all such schools do—such a report is not sensational. In the report, Ofsted set down a number of requirements that it wanted met before the school opened. In advance of the school opening, the trust went through the requirements with the lead contact in the Department for Education. It produced certificates to show that it had done the safeguarding and first aid training, and a certificate—[Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State ought to listen to this. The school produced a certificate authorised by the director of planning and transportation at Derby city council saying that the building was fit for occupation. After that, the Department sent an adviser to the school two months after it opened, who saw the good progress that the school was making at that stage.

In July 2013, we became aware of concerns about equalities and management issues at the school and acted immediately on that. We established an Education Funding Agency financial investigation into the school and sent our advisers to it. We asked Ofsted to bring forward its inspection, which has now taken place. Prior to receiving that inspection, the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Nash, wrote to the school setting out precisely the actions that it will take, and making it clear that its funding will not continue unless it addresses those things.

If the shadow Secretary of State is so supportive of free schools, why does he not have the responsibility to put the failure of the school into context? Seventy-five per cent. of the free schools that have opened have been rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. That is a higher proportion than the proportion of local authority schools. We did not hear that from the hon. Gentleman.

On complacency, which I believe is the allegation the hon. Gentleman makes, may I remind him of the record of the Labour Government whom he defends? At the end of their period in office, 8% of schools in this country —more than 1,500—were rated as inadequate, many had been so for years, with no action. By focusing on one school in which the Government are taking action, the hon. Gentleman is failing schools in this country, including ones that failed under the Labour Government, when little action was taken.

People listening to these exchanges and to the hon. Gentleman, and reflecting on what he said on Sunday and how he has stood on his head today, will see nothing other than total and utter opportunism and shambles from Labour’s education policy.

The leaked Ofsted report states that

“the governors have failed the parents of this community who have placed their trust in them.”

Will Ministers intervene to replace the current board of governors with an interim executive board? Looking to the future, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that the training available to the governors of free schools properly equips them for that important role?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman—the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education—that Lord Nash and I are taking decisive action to ensure that the school improves its leadership and governance. The hon. Gentleman will understand why I cannot go into all the details of that, although the clear requirements are set out in the letter Lord Nash wrote to the school on 8 October, which has been published.

The leaked report has rung an alarm bell. Will the right hon. Gentleman learn the lessons from it, because what begins as a good idea—having unqualified and sometimes untrained teachers in an establishment—can, in some cases, be very dangerous and damaging? May we have an explicit word from him this morning to say that, in this country, no establishment and no school—this should not even happen in home schooling—should treat girls in a subservient way and differently from boys?

The hon. Gentleman, the former Chair of the Select Committee, is absolutely right: different treatment for boys and girls is unacceptable. We have made that absolutely clear and required the school to change those practices immediately, for both pupils and teaching staff. He is a reasonable man and will know that it is sensible and responsible to draw the right conclusions from one school, and balance them against the success of many free schools. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) wanted to praise and associate himself with that success on Sunday and withdrew his support by Tuesday.

I declare an interest as chair of governors of St James’ Church of England primary school in Bermondsey and as a trustee of Bacon’s college in Rotherhithe. Having seen the report that states clearly four findings of inadequacy, nine significant failings and only three strengths, will the Minister tell us the timetable for Al-Madinah school, if it is to continue, to be found good, satisfactory or excellent? What is the process for new schools on how soon inspections can happen? What is the trigger for parents and concerned parties in any school to start a process of additional inspection, and what is the speed at which that can be done?

I assure my right hon. Friend that we are following a two-pronged strategy to deal with these concerns. The Minister with responsibility for free schools, Lord Nash, set out clearly, in a letter on 8 October to the chair of governors, a series of actions that are expected to be taken by the free school in swift order—within this calendar month. We will report back to the House and others on those actions, including the issues identified by Ofsted, to ensure that they have been taken and dealt with. In addition, given the highly critical nature of the report, Ofsted will follow up to ensure improvements are rapid. We will consider, very swiftly indeed, whether the governing body and the existing leadership have the capacity to make those improvements.

The Minister will know that the majority of children who attend the school are of the Muslim faith: this is a faith school that is also a free school. Earlier this year, on 15 March, the Secretary of State opened the first Hindu free school that is a faith school in my constituency, which I applaud and welcome. Will he confirm that nothing he has said today will affect the Government’s policy if a faith school wishes to be a free school?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will still allow faith schools to be free schools. We must not lose sight of the fact that some of the best schools are faith schools. That includes Muslim schools—both free and non-free schools—some of which have secured impressive levels of attainment and progress.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the mess that the previous Government made of education, but he may not be aware that the chair of the education trust and chair of governors at Al-Madinah free school is a member of, and fundraiser for, the Labour party and recently stood as a candidate in the Derby city council elections. Does the Minister think the mess the school is in could have anything to do with a local leadership that seems to come directly from the national Labour party?

What I can compare favourably is the swift action that this Government take when we find a school that is failing. That contrasts with the previous Labour Government, who had more than 1,500 schools categorised as inadequate. I do not remember any occasion where the same scrutiny was given to those schools.

Surely this situation demonstrates the need for those working with children to be properly trained and qualified. Will the Minister change course, follow our lead and require all teachers to be qualified?

We want to ensure that teachers in schools have good qualifications and the capacity to teach. The hon. Lady will know, however, that there are plenty of teachers who may not have formal qualifications but who still do a superb job. We are ensuring, through the Ofsted inspection process, that every single teacher has the capability to teach. All classes are assessed for quality, and that is the right way to ensure a backstop of high standards.

There are 170 free schools across the country and plans for more, including one serving my constituency. Will the Minister assure me that, notwithstanding this isolated case, the Government’s plans for these schools will go ahead so that they can continue raising standards?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The speed with which the shadow Secretary of State has stood on his head regarding Labour policy on free schools will unnerve many free schools across the country and undermine the confidence of the many free schools that are doing a fantastic and innovative job. I just draw attention to the fact that the proportion of free schools that are outstanding and good is higher than in the rest of the school population, even though many of them have only been in existence for two years.

The Minister reports that his Department had concerns about this school. Which other free schools does his Department have concerns about?

I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about the concerns we identified in July and August. We acted swiftly on those, and we would act swiftly on any other concerns.

Is it not right that the Government should take action, whether a free school or a Government-run school is having problems, and is it not wrong to leap on one single instance of a problem, because it is being tackled, and blame the other 169 schools, too?

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. When we consider how to intervene in failing schools, we need to consider the challenge of intervening just as swiftly as we are in this school in the hundreds of other schools across the country that are performing inadequately. The hard reality is that under the last Government and some previous Governments, too many inadequate schools across the country were able to sustain inadequate performance for long periods. The challenge is to ensure that the focus on this school is also on all those other maintained schools, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central seems far less attracted to focusing on.

The local authority in this case has neither the power nor the capacity to help, so who will help the school to improve and take the action the Minister is requiring it to take?

We certainly will take action. The local authority concerned should reflect on some of the schools that it is responsible for in the area, many of which are not good or outstanding. It should focus on doing its job; we will do ours.

Is the Minister as surprised as I am that, interestingly, whereas the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who has been vociferous in the national and local press about this school, because he is totally against free schools, wants it brought within the remit of the local authority, the chairman of governors, who wanted to be a Labour councillor, was quite happy with it? Labour’s policy is all over the place. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was at odds with the shadow Secretary of State, but clearly he is not.

Order. First, the question was too long; secondly, the Minister has absolutely no responsibility for the attendance or stance of absent or present Members. Perhaps we can deal holistically with the issue, rather than with the minutiae.

The hon. Lady has succeeded rather well in highlighting the fact that anybody trying to understand what Labour’s policy on free schools this week would be rather confused.

The Minister spoke about the safeguards in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but his comments were unconvincing given that it has happened and children are suffering as a result. Will he now acknowledge that the Secretary of State in Whitehall cannot possibly provide the level of scrutiny, oversight or support that schools need and which the local community, through the local authority, is much better placed to provide?

The very fact that we are having this urgent question about one particular school that has performed very badly shows the degree of scrutiny there is on free schools. The challenge is to ensure that every other failing school across the country has the same level of scrutiny.

The failing of any school is regrettable, be it a free school or non-free school, but does the Minister accept that we need to see it in the context of the success of the policy? Can he reassure me that strong action will be taken and that the model that has worked successfully elsewhere will also be used in this case?

I can give precisely that assurance. I can assure my hon. Friend that those of us on the Government Benches will not ignore and run down the achievements of the vast majority of free schools, which have done an absolutely fantastic job in the last two years.

The Minister says he wants to ensure that teachers are qualified and supervised, but last year his Department announced that teachers in free schools and academies did not need to be qualified to be appointed and never did. As a result, Al-Madinah school appointed virtually all its teachers on an unqualified basis. Does he think that is any cause for reflection on the announcement he made last year about unqualified teachers being acceptable?

The governing body and the school leadership have a clear responsibility to recruit teachers who are fit to do the job, and if they are failing to do that, we will act against them.

I salute the Government’s swift action on this matter. Does the Minister agree that it also reinforces the argument that we need strong and effective leadership in schools, especially through school governance?

I certainly do. If Members, particularly on the Opposition Benches, reflect more carefully on this issue, they will see that one of the lessons is that the speed with which we have acted on the concerns expressed should be reflected in the speed with which we see action in all schools that are weak.

Will the Minister ensure that one sector of these children—children with special learning difficulties—is looked after more than others? They are the ones who suffer most in any school that this happens to. Will he ensure through his office that those children get adequate cover while this period of uncertainty continues?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to put the spotlight on the young people in the school, whose concerns need to be top of our list of priorities. We will ensure that those with special needs—indeed, all the pupils—are properly catered for through this period, which is one reason why Lord Nash has acted so swiftly to ensure that the school resolves the outstanding problems.

The free school revolution has triggered a renaissance of educational hope and lit a thousand candles around the country, with people investing and taking an interest in new education. May I welcome the speed with which those on the Front Bench have acted on this school, but also urge the Minister and the team not in any way to allow the intellectual and political gymnastics of Opposition Front Benchers—who have opposed progressive reforms in education for years and have now seized on one case of failure—to slow down these important reforms, which are giving hope to millions?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not impressed or distracted by the gymnastics we have seen over the last week or by the desperate attempt by the shadow Education Secretary to resolve his differences with his own Schools Minister, who has a totally different view about free schools. We will remain focused on improving this school—and, indeed, all schools across the country that need improvement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this urgent question demonstrates the Opposition’s political dogma on education? They are using one failing free school to criticise all free schools. Given that the comprehensive school that I attended is now sadly in special measures, does he not think it is telling that the Labour party is not asking questions—

Order. I must have told the hon. Gentleman over three and a half years a score of times—I now tell him for the 21st time—that questions must be about the policy of the Government, not the Opposition; nor is this an occasion for general dilation by Members on their own educational experiences. The urgent question is narrowly focused on a particular school; it is with that, and that alone, that we are concerned. I hope my point has now finally registered with the hon. Gentleman.

I thank the shadow Education Secretary for asking this urgent question on such an important issue. We should be focusing on this particular school, not making party political points, although, interestingly, more Government Members are interested in this subject than Opposition Members. Can the Minister confirm that, if necessary, he has the power to close the school down if it cannot be reformed?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I can certainly confirm to him that we have powers to take action against the school, as Lord Nash has already made very clear in his letter.

Parents will have pressed for the Al-Madinah free school to be established because they felt that the school would provide a suitable education for their children. I am reassured by the actions already taken, but will the Minister also ensure that pre-applications are thoroughly scrutinised?

I will certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We scrutinise free school applications very carefully and reject many of them for a variety of different reasons. We will continue to scrutinise them very closely.

The OECD report published last week places Britain near the bottom of the international literacy and numeracy league tables. Does that not make the case for continued innovation in education? Will the Minister ensure that this poor example does not undermine the excellent and innovative free schools programme?

My hon. Friend makes a telling point about the educational challenges for this country and about the need to focus on educational failure from wherever it comes. It speaks volumes about the Labour party that it should choose to have an urgent question on this one individual school while across the country there are hundreds of other schools facing similar challenges in which it seems to have no equivalent interest.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the failings of this particular school, free schools, university technical schools and the pupil premium are transforming education in our country and that we should not use the failure of one school to become the enemy of choice for parents who want to set up their own schools?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), will publish information showing the progress made across the country in last year’s exam results—progress that, thanks to our reforms and to Ofqual, we can be assured is real progress and not simply inflated progress.

What is happening is that Lord Nash is taking decisive action to address, one by one, all the deficiencies identified in the Ofsted report. He has already received detailed responses and assurances on many points from the free school, and we will make sure that we get assurances on all those issues. We will then make a judgment about whether the people running the school are fit to continue running it in the future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that actions taken in respect of Al-Madinah school demonstrate that this Government are tough on low standards wherever they occur—whether it be in free schools, local authority schools or academy schools?

My hon. Friend is right. If we reflect on some of the schools that were able to languish in failure for many years under the last Labour Government without decisive action being taken, we will find that our actions in this case compare very favourably indeed.

I welcome the action taken in respect of this school and the fact that the majority of the 170 free schools are outperforming local authority schools. Does the Minister agree that one bad apple does not spoil the barrel, and has he learned anything about Labour’s policy on free schools?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that the shadow Secretary of State who speaks for the Opposition on these matters has not concluded that the Labour party’s last academies programme was deficient because some of those academies have failed. There is a basic lack of logic in Labour’s position and an ideological resistance to innovation in the school system.

Whether it be at the Al-Madinah school or any other school, most of my constituents would take the view that it is completely inappropriate for any school uniform policy to include a requirement for schoolgirls to wear the full-face Islamic veil. Is that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government, or is it up to each school to decide?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we do not want these impositions on children or on staff—and we have made that clear to this school.