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Al-Madinah Free School

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 17 October 2013


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place this morning by my right honourable friend the Minister for Schools on behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

“I welcome this opportunity to make a Statement on Al-Madinah Free School. This school serves children and young people between the ages of four and 16 in the Derby community and 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 the school was delivering on its commitment to be inclusive, and some 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 its funding agreement. Our concerns were such that we requested Ofsted to bring forward its planned inspection. The Ofsted report is published this morning. It has found that the school is dysfunctional and is 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. I wrote to the chair of the trust on 8 October, following the previous investigations, and set out all the requirements of the trust to take swift and decisive actions to deal with the serious concerns. We have been very clear with the trust that failure to do so promptly will result in the school’s funding being terminated. We have also been very clear with the trust that it must address the breaches identified. We will not let any school, whether a free school, an academy school 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 fails its parents, its children and its community. We said that we will take swift action in these cases, and we are”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, but does he recognise that the damning failure of Al-Madinah school all too starkly illustrates that, in the rush to launch an ideological experiment, the Secretary of State has lost control of the free schools programme, and that it has, in fact, become a dangerous free-for-all? Does he now accept that alarm bells should have rung in the department when Ofsted deemed the school to be failing to meet basic child protection standards back in 2012, before the funding agreement was signed? Does not Ofsted’s conclusion that the school has not been adequately monitored and supported expose the dangerous lack of oversight of the current free schools programme, which has a complete absence of accountability and transparency? The truth is that parents will be wondering who will guarantee the standards in their local free school, and the Secretary of State does not have an answer for them.

My Lords, after the gymnastics performed by the shadow Secretary of State for Education in the other place this morning, I was rather hoping that the noble Baroness’s answer might enlighten us as to the Labour Party’s policy on free schools—indeed, whether it has an education policy at all. Sadly, I am none the wiser. The school was cleared by Ofsted to open if it satisfied the department on a number of points, and it did satisfy us on those points. An education adviser visited the school in November last year and reported that it was making good progress. In late July, we and Ofsted received various complaints just before the head teacher resigned. We sent the EFA in and Ofsted went in on 1 and 2 October. I have taken swift and decisive action in this case. I will not allow the school to continue unless it satisfies me on the points set out in my letter of 8 October, and any other points we deem appropriate. We should not let the performance of this school affect the excellent work that is being done in our free schools, the first batch of which were good and outstanding in 75% of cases, as opposed to 63% of all other schools.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government acted decisively and promptly to ensure that this action was taken? However, will he also reflect on the need to ensure that teachers and the leadership of our free schools should be fully qualified so that occurrences such as this are least likely to happen?

My Lords, there are plenty of teachers in schools up and down the country who do not have formal qualifications and are doing an excellent job, but we ensure through Ofsted that teaching in these schools is good, and we will ensure that the governance and leadership of these schools is appropriate.

The noble Lord’s answer to that question was somewhat complacent. For many years we have struggled in this country to ensure that teachers in primary and secondary schools that are state funded have proper qualifications. To allow these schools to be set up with teachers who do not have such qualifications is an invitation to problems. Will he not give a guarantee that he and his Secretary of State will reconsider their policy of allowing these schools to be established and continue in operation without qualified teachers in every case?

I am afraid that I cannot give that guarantee. We will guarantee to ensure that the leadership and management of these schools, and teachers teaching within them, are appropriate. But I am afraid, given the state of our school system that we inherited—

We have to bring innovation into the school system and will not let a dogmatic approach resist such innovation.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the Bishop of Derby and congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the monitoring and firm action that is being taken. As I understand it, this is a very local initiative. What lessons can be learnt because if we do not have the local authority playing a key role, how are we providing the right kind of framework and guidance for local initiatives so that the right kind of standards, structures and expectations are put in place and met? What are we learning and how are we going to deal with that?

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his question. This is a local initiative, it is quite a complicated situation and I do not have time to go into all the details now, but I can assure the House that we are all over this and will not allow this situation to continue.

Will the Minister confirm that the pre-registration report actually flagged up many significant concerns, which we are now seeing in practice following what happened recently? Does he intend, as one of the lessons learnt, to ensure that such concerns are properly monitored when they are flagged up? Clearly, this was not the case in this situation, including on the vital issue of properly trained teachers. Will he also confirm that there is no place in our education system—in free schools, faith schools, home tuition or anywhere—for any practices that discriminate against the education of girls?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness on the last point. There is no place in our school system for such practices and we have made that absolutely clear to this school. As regards the monitoring of schools, our procedures are extremely tight. This situation developed quite rapidly over the summer, leading up to the head teacher’s resignation.

Does my noble friend accept that dogmatism is not normally compatible with common sense? Does he accept that there are many teachers in some of the finest schools in this country, which produce some of the best results, who do not have a formal qualification, just as there are many schools where all the teachers have a formal qualification but where the results are less than satisfactory? We have to preserve a sense of balance in all these things.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Blackstone makes an important point. Is the Minister aware that only recently I gave a class to 17 primary school teachers teaching science for professional career development? Only one had done science at university and most of them did not have even an A-level in science? That is a very real problem when you are dealing with children under the age of 10.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question. I was not aware of the lesson he referred to, although I have heard him speak on a number of occasions. I entirely agree. The state of our primary schools in many cases is not satisfactory and we have an active programme in place to improve this. I would be happy to talk to him in more detail about it privately.