CONSERVATIVE Education Minister Elizabeth Truss has rejected Liberal Democrat calls for tighter controls on the burgeoning number free schools in England, many of them set up by faith groups.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the schools should employ only qualified teachers and adhere to the national curriculum so that parents could be sure their children were receiving a high standard of education.
Clegg became involved a row over free schools at the weekend just after it was revealed that more than 60 parents had asked Derby City Council about moving their children out of the Muslim Al-Madinah free school prior to the publication of a damning Ofsted report about the school which said that it was failing in all areas and was “dysfunctional”.
Enquiries were made by 67 parents, with 33 making formal applications to put their children elsewhere.
The school said it accepted the findings and would use them to move on.
Last Thursday, Dr Stuart Wilson, the acting head teacher, said there were serious problems at the school and accepted some of the lessons were not meeting necessary standards.
The Ofsted report said teachers at Al-Madinah were inexperienced and had not been provided with proper training and that the school required special measures.
The Ofsted inspection had been due to take place by the end of the year but was prioritised following initial allegations that female teachers were obliged to wear hijabs and boys and girls were segregated.
David Cameron told BBC Radio Derby last Thursday that the Al-Madinah situation should not be used as a stick with which to beat the whole free school movement.
This was followed by Truss’s attack on some Lib Dems who did not back free schools. She said the “whole point” of the schools:
Is they have these freedoms… that’s what’s helping them outperform maintained schools. You shouldn’t kill off the goose that’s laid the golden egg.
Truss noted that independent schools “operate well” without being made to hire qualified teachers and have done so “for hundreds of years”.
The Minister for Faith and Communities Baroness Warsi has also launched a robust defence of faith and free schools.
Asked if the Al-Madinah situation disappointed her she said:
You will always have occasions, whether they are in the private sector, whether in the state sector, or whether they are a free school, where some schools will not be up to the standard we would like them to be.
The Baroness, who was the first Muslim woman to serve as a minister in the UK, spoke during her visit to the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Derby yesterday.
Up to 412 pupils, aged four to 16, could find themselves without school places if Schools Minister Lord Nash decides that Al-Madinah, which opened in September 2012, should lose its public funding, which he has threatened if improvements are not made.
Al-Madinah’s governing body is answerable only to the Government and Ofsted, with funding coming directly from the Department for Education.
The baroness insisted:
What free schools do, and we’ve seen this up and down the country, in some of the most deprived communities, is they have been an opportunity for an excellent education which is aspirational and pushes children to want more for themselves.
In May, the Department for Education announced the approval of 102 new free schools due to open from September 2014. This includes 25 new religious schools, as well as one Steiner school. The British Humanist Association (BHA) expressed regret at the continuing increase in the number of “faith” schools.
The 25 new schools include 15 schools formally designated with a religious character and ten schools with a “faith ethos”.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn (Warsi report)