5 Lessons From Derby: The Significance of Al-Madinah Free School

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 5-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 unauthorized absences and the overall attendance rate is less than 90%. 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% 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.


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.

Related Posts:

Why did West London Free School change their vision?

Following up on Free Schools & Transparency

23 thoughts on “5 Lessons From Derby: The Significance of Al-Madinah Free School

  1. Reblogged this on Jeez, not you again! and commented:
    ‘Dysfunctional and inadequate in every category’ is really pretty appalling. And fully agree that we need a process for closing free schools which fail to meet basic standards. Then there is the cost issue. Exactly right, Laura McInerney, this is a mammoth Gove cock-up, and it is about time he admitted it and explained to taxpayers why, in times of austerity, their money is being squandered on projects like this!

  2. So where is Mr Gove now then – keeping a very low profile!! Agreed this was entirely predictable and who is suffering? Children. This is nothing short of disgraceful. #govemustgo.

  3. Understand your concerns, but i’m wondering whether there are other free schools experiencing similar problems, or whether this is an isolated case. If we were going to shut down an entire system of design based on the performance of individual schools, then trust me, we wouldn’t have the current state system we have now.

    1. You, and some other commentors, seem to think I am anti-free schools. I’m not. Since 2010 I’ve advocated FOR the system, but I want one that works.

      It’s not acceptable to say “schools already weren’t working, so we just made them carry on not working a bit differently”. That is a waste of time and money. What should happen is that the government tweaks the system to incorporate these changes. That has always been my campaign: NOT to abolish the system but strengthen it.

  4. We will see what measures are taken to improve Al Madinah Free School. However, the action that has been taken so far has been far quicker to be triggered and much more open to public scrutiny than would be the case for ordinary comprehensives. A damning Ofsted report and a rating of 4 does not make national news for the numerous ordinary comprehensives which have not only fallen below the floor standards but have been at that level for years. Al Madinah was threatened with immediate closure earlier this week. Yet, one of my local schools has been consistently failing (albeit that it has worked hard to go from a 4 to a 3 last year) ever since it opened in new buildings in 1992. It has a roll of less than half its capacity and almost nobody would or does choose to send their child there – the level of parental disengagement is obvious from the fact that at the last Ofsted inspection not a single parent of the 340 children at the school responded to the parent feedback questionnaire. I doubt very much that that school, filled with qualified staff, in good modern buildings and after years of failed intervention to improve it so that it became at least barely adequate will be closed. It doesn’t even make the news locally.

    Yet, even though projections say that there will need to be several large schools opened in the area to meet demand, it is allowed to persist as a drain on resources, maleducating its relatively disadvantaged intake and having a large amount of spare capacity. All this in a large city with a low unemployment rate, serving a community which is within walking distance of a lot of job opportunities which its failed students are incapable of taking.

    Free Schools might be a terrible idea, but the pre-existing system is not one to laud.

      1. It does. The big issue then is whether lessons will be learned. If they are then Al Madinah will be a good case study in everything that could go wrong going wrong at once.

  5. Hmmm. OK, let’s get some relative stats.
    As a percentage of each, how many free schools and how many comprehensive/mainstream schools have:

    * Been closed on the spot and put into special measures?
    * Been commended for their high quality of teaching?
    * Are above average and below for their quality of teaching?

    You seem to be taking an exceptional, isolated incident and building a case round it.

    OK, a few years ago, I was mugged by a black man for my mobile while changing trains at Reading station. What should we be alarmed most about here? What should we prohibit, Miss McInerney?

    * Black people?
    * Men?
    * Mobiles?
    * Trains?
    * Stations?
    * The town of Reading?(1)
    * All of the above?

    That said, I DO agree with:

    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.

    But, again, this was the policy of that school, not the free school policy.

    Show me a solid case that proves that free schools are performing resoundingly and consistantly worse than other schools, and I’ll nod in agreement. Until then, I’ll raise a quizical eyebrow.

    1. Here’s the thing: I never said that Free Schools are all failing, not even most of them. But the fact that you have even one exception proves that there are some problems. After the Hatfield Rail Crash, which was *one* incident, did the railways sit around and go – “oh well, never mind, it’s rare, it doesn’t happen EVERY day, it didn’t even kill that many people when compared to other rail crashes”? Of course not. That crash exposed serious flaws that had occurred because of the new rail infrastructure under privatisation.

      Now, I happen to be a privatised rail fan (at least to an extent). I think, on the whole, the system is better operated under contracts than by one monolithic entity. But I nevertheless want the rails to RUN PROPERLY and so it’s important that when something like Hatfield happens, and exposes issues, that we don’t just stick our fingers in our ears afraid that people are being nasty about our allegedly great privatisation plan.

      It is the same with schools. I am not saying the policy has failed in its entirety. What I am saying is that some exceptions teach you wider lessons about problems that need solving. Governments are remiss if they ignore the warnings before the issues (like at Hatfield), and they are absolutely negligent if they don’t use disaster cases to plan for the future.

      So I don’t need to find you a “solid case that proves that free schools are performing resoundingly and consistently worse than other schools”. I just need to find you one that shows up the flaws I’ve been banging on about for the past three years. And this one was it.

      [And on the paragraph you do agree with – that absolutely is the entire free schools policy in a nutshell. No middle tier, no clear contract, no transparency.]

      1. OK, some fair points here in the response. But do you think there might be something else at play here, too?
        Maybe it’s not the problem of the system here, but the problem of the ideology?

        Do you think maybe what REALLY needs attacking here is the ideology of the school, rather than the system?

        Maybe we’ve got a “Rotherham Syndrome” going on here. A fear of criticising something obviously wrong, out of some misguided idea that offending an ideology is worse than protecting children. After all, it was months ago that teachers were expressing alarm about the segregation, standards of teaching and, more alarmingly, the practice of adults watching the children wash their genitals several times a day.

        I can’t imagine any other situation in which this was allowed to continue for so long.

        The elephant in the room?

        1. Do you mean the ideology of the school? If there are safeguarding and teaching issues – then yes, that should b (and was) attacked by Ofsted. At same time I think we have to question how it was allowed to get to this stage and, partly, it was down to a shakily implemented policy on these schools.

          As for religious schools, they’re not my favourite thing, but for as long as they exist my main focus on ensuring they at least work to safe and appropriate standards.

  6. We have to ask ourselves the bigger question here. Was the free school movement ever about raising standards or just a way to sell off our schools for profit? I think the secrecy around the process of selection gives us the answer.

  7. I’m not sure I agree with this ‘search for the motive’ argument. What matters is whether children get the quality of education they and we expect and aspire to at reasonable cost. How malign or benign the motives of the SofS are seems to me to matter only to ideologues. I have never quite grasped why issues of ‘control’ seem to be matters of belief.when it seems obvious to me that the important question is ‘does it make education better?’. I see the same attitudes break out over so-called ‘privatisation’ when a cursory glance through the array of ownership arrangements in the state-funded English system would show that it is already pretty mixed economy.

    I personally see no problem in principle in experimenting with different forms of governance (though why we need to do this in the most diverse system in the developed world is a bit beyond me). I think it’s probably irrelevant, or would be if all the forms were subject to the same rules, protocols and disciplines. This is where the current free school policy seems to be flawed as Laura has so clearly analysed

  8. I just want to comment on your remark “On their own, each of these things is exceptionally problematic. That they all co-exist, in one school, is extraordinary.” I don’t think it’s extraordinary at all. All of the issues you mention share a very strong common factor, namely gross incompetence by management.

  9. The most damning thing is the lack of transparency in opening/closing free schools. How did this application even go through. I understand it’s a few hundred pages of paperwork that needs to be submitted to open a Free School. How are these applications evaluated? That’s the big question that MissMcinerney you have highlighted so well here.

  10. As someone who has been away from teaching for a while and is now looking to return to the classroom all be it in another country, the idea that they are letting anyone teach boggles my mind. Being a good teacher may come naturally to some but what to teach and how to teach in a way the maximizes a students learning / potential does not.

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