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Free school head accepts 'problems'

The leaders of a controversial Muslim free school that has been declared failing by inspectors accepted today that it has a "whole range of problems".

Al-Madinah free school in Derby was branded "dysfunctional" by Ofsted in a damning report which criticised governors for failing to keep pupils safe and appreciate how poor pupils' experiences are.

Interim principal Stuart Wilson insisted the school has already begun tackling major areas of concern.

As the report was published, Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the failings at Al-Madinah should not be used "as a stick with which to beat the whole free school movement".

Al-Madinah, which has been criticised following claims it discriminated against women, required staff to cover their hair regardless of their religion, and made girls sit at the back of the class, was rated inadequate in each of the categories Ofsted examines.

The report stated: " The basic systems and processes a school needs to operate well are not in place. The school is in chaos and reliant on the goodwill of an interim principal to prevent it totally collapsing."

Ofsted criticised governors for failing to keep children safe and to appoint staff with the right skills, knowledge and experience.

"Despite their commitment to the vision for the school, the governors have failed the parents of this community who have placed their trust in them," it said.

Inspectors found that the school had been set up and run by members of the community who have "limited knowledge and experience", while teachers are inexperienced.

In many lessons, pupils were given the same work to do, regardless of their abilities, the report said.

Speaking outside the school Dr Wilson said that any school facing special measures has its fair share of issues and accepted that the school has "a whole range of problems".

He said it was important not to forget the positives in the report, such as relationships between staff and pupils.

"We've worked through already our health and safety issues, we need to continue to build on that, putting the basic procedures in place to allow any organisation to function, communications etc - those are things we can do quickly - and then we're now working very much on the curriculum to identify how we can target work to individual children, work with teachers, develop the training."

Dr Wilson said that the school had made a start to each of the 17 areas of concern outlined in Lord Nash's letter to the chair of governors last week, and that a number of these have been addressed.

And he insisted there had been no suggestion from Ofsted that there were concerns about boys and girls being treated differently.

"The situation remains the same, that is that boys sit at one side of the classroom and girls sit at another," he said.

"In terms of lunchtimes, one day the boys will go for lunch first, another day the girls will go for lunch first, because it's quite a small dining room.

"Those aren't the real issues. It's the same with the hijab, really. I never had any complaints, the governing body never had any complaints, the Ofsted inspector never had any complaints."

School governor Abdullah Shahjan, raised concerns that a leaked version of the Ofsted report was made available to the media.

"We believe this was intentional and we believe that a full immediate independent investigation takes place," he said.

He added: "We are aware of the areas that we need to improve and we are making every effort to ensure we continue to develop in line with the findings of Ofsted, recommendations and external supporting agencies."

Al-Madinah, which is one of the Government's flagship free schools and is run by the Al-Madinah Education Trust, opened last September.

On its website it describes ''a strong Muslim ethos'' with shorter holidays and longer school days ''to maximise opportunities for pupil achievement and success''.

The school is seeking legal advice over the way it has been treated by Government after ministers warned it faced closure.

Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Schools Minister David Laws said that the Government had been "very clear" with the Al-Madinah Trust that it must take action, and that failure to do so will result in its funding being axed - effectively closing the school.

"We will not let any school, whether a free school, an academy school or a local authority school, languish in failure," he told MPs.

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said Education Secretary Michael Gove's free schools agenda was "out of control" and that the free schools policy had been dealt a "devastating blow" by the revelations in Derby.

Prime Minister David Cameron told BBC Radio Derby: "Let's not use this as a stick with which to beat the whole free school movement, because actually there are now hundreds of schools in our country that are set up as free schools and on average they have more outstanding ratings and more good ratings than established schools."

Mr Hunt told Channel 4 News he believed there should be "absolute equality" in the education of boys and girls.

Asked whether one of the "parent-led academies" advocated by Labour would be allowed to insist on staff wearing headscarves or there was segretation of students he said: " No. This is a school funded by British taxpayers. We have had a long fight for gender equality in this country.

"The story of Malala seeking asylum in this country because of her fight for education, we believe in absolute equality within the Labour movement in terms of boys and girls education and I think that's a pretty basic fundamental."


From Belfast Telegraph