A Muslim free school threatened with closure by ministers yesterday has criticised the government over the way it has handled the affair, particularly its decision to go public.
Schools minister Lord Nash published a letter addressed to the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby, warning it faced being shut down amid claims of discrimination toward female staff and pupils, as well as delivering a poor standard of education.
The letter said the school must show written evidence that it will no longer require staff to cover their hair "if contrary to their religion or beliefs" after it came to light it had forced female staff to wear head scarves – or hijabs – regardless of whether they were Muslim or not. The letter also demanded the school must stop any practices where women and girls might be treated less favourably than male pupils and staff.
But in a surprisingly forthright response from the Al-Madinah Free School, it said Lord Nash’s letter had come “out of the blue” and added it was not being “treated comparably with other schools”.
The statement reads: “At 9:10 am, on Tuesday 8th October 2013, the chair of the Al-Madinah Trust [Shazia Parveen], received a letter directly from Lord Nash. She was informed that this letter will be published at 10 am, leaving less than an hour before we might be asked for a response by the Press.
“To say that this letter came out of the blue is an understatement. Only last week we were given to understand that communications with the school will continue to go through the usual tried and tested channels and according to established timescales.”
Lord Nash said the school must take “swift action” if it was to avoid being closed down by the Department for Education, and revealed Al-Madinah was the focus of two internal investigations.
But in its response, the free school made no mention of the claims it had discriminated against female staff or pupils, which formed one of the central charges against the school.
Instead, it said the concerns spelt out in the letter “broadly clustered” around three areas – health and safety, governance and finance-related issues and educational standards.
The school added that it remained committed to working in the best interests of its pupils and parents, but admitted it was seeking legal advice.
“At this point, the school is struggling to see how we are being treated comparably with other schools. Consequently, while we intend to co-operate fully with the Department for Education, we have also sought the advice of the school’s solicitors,” the statement adds.