Tristram Hunt: Gove's free school policy is a "dangerous ideological experiment"
Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow education secretary, has written to Michael Gove about the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby and on the wider free schools policy in general:
As I set out at the weekend, I strongly believe in the entrepreneurship and energy that parents, teachers and local communities can provide. However, there has to be proper local oversight of all schools, teachers must be qualified and new schools should be open in areas of need. These are some of the key differences between Labour's parent-led academies and your free schools policy.
In the coming days, we expect Ofsted to publish the inspection report on one of your flagship free schools, the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby. You will be very aware of the high level of public interest and concern generated by the recent temporary closure of the school and the imminent findings of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate.
As I am sure you will agree, there should be no excuse for underperformance in any school. But it is especially troubling that 400 pupils should be deprived of a week of schooling because a publicly funded free school failed in its duty to meet basic child safety requirements.
Moreover, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools has recently acknowledged that theAl-Madinah Free Schoolis “delivering an unacceptably poor standard of education” and I am extremely concerned that this situation could be indicative of a systemic complacency on standards.
Therefore, as all free schools are directly accountable to the secretary of state, I am writing to seek clarification and assurances on a number of points:
- Are you satisfied with the current arrangements for spotting underperformance in free schools?
- Is there a plan to improve standards in free schools that are underperforming?
- Will you and the prime minister commit to full disclosure of free school applications and financial arrangements to improve transparency and strengthen accountability to the taxpayer?
- Given that prior to the opening of Al-Madinah Free School you received a number of warnings from Ofsted regarding potential issues with the welfare, health and safety of pupils, what steps were taken to ensure that these warnings were heeded and that all issues were resolved before the school opened?
- Are you satisfied with the current framework for assessing the suitability of free school applications?
- Reports suggest that teachers and school employees had failed to secure CRB checks. Can you confirm or deny the substance of these reports?
- Given that a governor of Al-Madinah Free-School said in an interview that aired on BBC Newsnight on 11 October 2013 that, “The very first question we ask [when interviewing female applicants for jobs at the free school] is would you be prepared to cover your hair if you came to this school as part of the uniform policy?" Do you believe that there are sufficient regulations to prevent discriminatory practices in the recruitment of staff at free schools?
- Are you satisfied that the treatment of women and girls is consistent with equality regulations?
- And given that a senior Department for Education spokesman was quoted over the weekend as suggesting that you “always said some free schools would fail", can you please explain how you will provide parents with a firm guarantee that their children’s education and safety is not being put at risk due to the inadequate oversight of your free schools programme?
I know that you will be concerned as I am that one of your free schools has failed to provide the quality of education we should expect for our children. In this school, as well as others across the country, your policy is being exposed as a dangerous ideological experiment which has been allowed to run completely out of control.
I look forward to receiving your response.
Tristram Hunt MP
Shadow Education Secretary