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Free school put in special measures
A controversial Muslim free school has been branded "dysfunctional" by inspectors who have declared it is failing.
Al-Madinah free school in Derby is set to be placed in special measures after being judged "inadequate" by Ofsted in a damning report.
Schools minister David Laws told MPs that the Government has taken "swift action" to deal with failings at the school, telling MPs it will not let any school "languish in failure".
The school has come in for criticism over recent weeks following claims that it discriminated against women, required staff to cover their hair even if they were not Muslim, and made girls sit at the back of the classroom and boys at the front.
Ofsted's report into the school, published today, condemns the running of the school, concluding that the governing body is ineffective and had failed to appreciate how poor pupils' experiences are.
It states: " 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."
As the report was published, the Department for Education (DfE) released a letter sent to Al-Madinah's chair of governors Shazia Parveen by schools minister Lord Nash, in which he says that Ofsted's report confirms the "very serious concerns" he raised in a letter to the school a week ago.
"The report is further compelling evidence of the breaches of the funding agreement I have required you to address," he writes.
"Contrary to your suggestion that I have acted prematurely, I am even more convinced of the need for very decisive and urgent action on the part of the Trust to comply with all your obligations and remedy the serious failings at the school."
Al-Madinah, which is one of the Government's flagship free schools and is run by the Al-Madinah Education Trust, opened in September last year.
On its website it describes ''a strong Muslim ethos'' with shorter holidays and longer school days ''to maximise opportunities for pupil achievement and success''.
Earlier this week the school said it was seeking legal advice over the way it has been treated by Government after ministers warned it faced closure.
In its report, Ofsted criticised governors for failing to keep children safe and to appoint staff with the right skills, knowledge and experience.
"The school is in chaos and reliant on the good will of an interim principal to prevent it totally collapsing," inspectors said.
"Accounting systems are not in place to ensure public money is properly spent and governors have failed to ensure an acceptable standard of education is provided by the school. 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."
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.
They added: ''Staff have been appointed to key roles for which they do not have qualifications and experience. For example, most of the primary school teachers have not taught before and the head of the primary school is experienced in teaching secondary-aged pupils only.''
In many lessons, pupils were given the same work to do, regardless of their abilities, the report said, adding that "p upils' achievement is inadequate because the staff's expectations are too low and pupils do not make enough progress".
Answering an urgent question in the Commons today, Mr Laws said that the Government had been "very clear" with the school's 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.
"The Ofsted report confirms 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 will take swift action in these cases and that is exactly what we are doing."
Mr Laws said that the Government started investigating the financial management and governance of Al-Madinah School in July, after being made aware of potential breaches of the school's funding conditions.
"We investigated whether the school was delivering on its commitment to be inclusive and we investigated some allegations about the issue of a dress requirement on female members of staff," he said.
"Our investigations did indeed find significant and numerous breaches of the conditions in its funding agreement and our concerns were such that we requested Ofsted to bring forward its planned inspection."
Mr Laws insisted that ministers were already taking "decisive action" before they received Ofsted's report.
Al-Madinah's interim principal Stuart Wilson said that the school "fully accepts" Ofsted's report.
"It does match our judgment of where the school is," he told the BBC.
Dr Wilson said the school has staff who are doing " an exceptional job in difficult circumstances", but accepted that there were not enough of them.
He said pupil numbers had stayed broadly the same, adding that there were some strengths in the report, such as the relationships between pupils and staff.
"I accept we do not have enough of those staff at the moment. This is obviously putting pressure on them and to our students. Our students haven't yet this year had a settled time where they've actually come to school and worked normally because of the special circumstances the school finds itself in.
"There are good things in the school but we need to focus on the teaching and learning and make sure that we improve those as quickly as possible."
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.
"What we need to do is get down to teaching and learning and to help our children make as much progress as we possibly can."
Speaking outside the school on Nelson Street in Derby, Dr Wilson said: "Any school that faces special measures, as we clearly now do, has got its fair share of problems. I accept we have a whole range of problems.
"Some of those are things we can fix in the short term quite quickly. Some of them are longer-term in terms of the longer-term progress for students, teaching and learning etc.
"But we must not forget some positives in the report because we still have got 412 students here and their families, the relationships, the moral development, all positives in terms of the soft skills.
"Now we need to focus on getting the basic infrastructure in place and then working on teaching and learning.
He added: "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/
"And again you'll see in the report that the teachers welcome that training. It's a question now of getting that training in, high quality training as quickly and efficiently as possible."
When asked how parents have reacted to the news, Dr Wilson said: "In many ways the parents are aware more of the reality of the school than the press are. They didn't have the concerns about the segregation. You'll notice in the report that Ofsted said that there were no concerns about that.
"They didn't have any concerns about the hijab. What they're seeing is the school is on a journey. I think we're in a position now where we're not where we want to be in terms of practicalities for the building.
"In terms of having the right number of staff in place in key roles, that's what we need to do now. We need key staff in key roles to allow the school to move forward as quickly as possible."
Asked about the future of the school, he said: "The 17 areas that Lord Nash has given us - we've made a start on every one of those areas and a number of those are completed.
"What will take longer is to sustain the quality of learning and teaching so that the children make good progress. Not satisfactory progress, good progress.
"Those things will take anybody, any school, significant time but with the loss of the headteacher, the deputy headteacher and the senior administrator at the same time, the people who would normally put those things into place haven't been here and so we're playing catch-up quite considerably."
When asked whether he was concerned the school could face closure, he said: "There will need to be a school here for 412 children as of the end of last month.
"There are people on a daily basis who are doing a very difficult job very well. It's not something they signed up to when they came to the school to be a member of staff here.
"We will do what's possible in the timescales that we're given. It's business as usual for our children."
Also speaking outside the school, Abdullah Shahjan, one of the school's governors, said: "It has been brought to our attention that very late last night 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.
"We believe that the right to journalism should be fair and impartial. Sadly, we see again how media and journalism have played into malicious and detrimental rumours and have used this impartial responsibility to gain official documents."
Speaking of the failures highlighted in the report, he said: "The trust, governing bodies and school continues to work to ensure we provide the support to our children, staff and the community, in terms of their education, development, and pastoral needs and we continue to be in the process of meeting the demands made by Lord Nash's letter.
"The official Ofsted report has been published on the Ofsted website and as yet we've not seen any of the media or journalists highlight the strengths identified by the report.
"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."
Labour leader Ed Miliband said the Government was responsible for the failing school and showed the free schools policy was "out of control".
During a visit to Peckham, south London, he said: "What this situation highlights is that Michael Gove's free school experiment is frankly wreaking havoc in some communities.
"It is shocking what this report reveals about the way this school has been run and what I want to know from this Government is how they have let this happen? How have they let this situation develop at this school in Derby?"
Derby City Council said it acknowledged the findings of the Ofsted report.
A statement said: "Educational attainment for all children and young people in Derby is as always our priority. The council is keen to work with other agencies as partners to address the key issues outlined in the Ofsted report.
"It is imperative that the educational attainment and needs of all children in the school are met while engaging with parents, carers and families.
"Derby City Council will respond to any specific requests in order to help improve the school and move it out of an Ofsted category.
"This approach applies to supporting any school in Derby for the benefit of all pupils."
Nick Raine, regional officer for the National Union of Teachers, said the failures highlighted in the report were "to be expected".
"People running schools without the skills and experience will create chaos, and lead to poor education for children," he said.
He said the lack of oversight in the free school model made failures and school closures inevitable and Al Madinah was just the first school found to be deficient.
"There's no accountability, to local people or to the local authority. In 2013 we can't have a situation where schools fail like businesses.
"Michael Gove has created this situation in hundreds of schools up and down the country because of his political, ideological beliefs.
"The Department for Education should be looking at the whole free school project."
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.
"So they are good things but when it goes wrong - just as when a state school goes wrong - you've got to get in there, sort it out or close it down."