Is it right to fear a Muslim free school?

21st October 2011 at 01:00

"So, it's a free school for the Muslims?" The question, from a journalist, threw me for a moment. I think it was the word "the" in the query that disturbed me a little.

"No," I replied calmly, "It's a Muslim free school."

I then went on to explain how the school would have an Islamic ethos, but would be open to everyone and that we are hoping to attract local students of all faiths and backgrounds.

The conversation happened a few days after the secretary of state approved our application for a new free school for boys in Blackburn. The process of gaining approval had involved hundreds of hours of work talking to local people and preparing a thorough business case. This was followed by months of due diligence by the Department for Education, where they probed everything about the new school, from its ethos to the brand of coffee that we liked. Tauheedul Islam Boys' High School, or TIBHS as we call it (the word "Islam" brings out a rash in some!), will open next September.

Since the decision in August, there has been a lot of publicity. Most people locally, the quiet majority, are excited. But the loudest voices have come from those who have decried the new school as a "bad day for schools" and a "bad day for the town". So it leads me to consider why some fear free schools so much.

Free schools are a natural progression from the city academy programme. Hundreds of schools have been taken over by private and public-sector sponsors and the evidence is that this has helped to improve standards. However, academies are not as radical as free schools. In most cases where a school has been converted into an academy, the headteacher gets changed but most of the staff stays the same. So academies remain, to an extent, shackled by the ghosts of the past and unable to make the intended fresh start.

Free schools are at liberty to be bolder. They are unburdened by a past, armed with the freedom to recruit the best teachers and aided by a philosophy that is pragmatically focused on success rather than being curtailed by the dogma of history.

So, why are free schools so opposed by some in our education system? Perhaps they are feared because they are misunderstood. Some argue that free schools, particularly those with a faith ethos, promote segregation and undermine community cohesion. However, there is evidence to the contrary. Parents of all faiths and none try desperately to get their son or daughter into successful Catholic and Church of England schools, not because they adhere to the faith ethos of that school, but because they recognise the value of the faith ethos in achieving standards and promoting discipline and character development. In the same way, we are confident that parents of non-Muslim boys will choose TIBHS.

We are also committed to developing outstanding citizens through our "Big Society" specialism. Every student will complete 500 hours of community service, learn about citizenship as part of their core curriculum and run social enterprises to raise funds for local causes. So, far from undermining community or social cohesion, we are determined to lead efforts for its revival.

Some also argue that free schools will drain resources from, and hurt standards in, other schools. Again, this view misses the point. Free schools are funded in the same way, with the same allocation per pupil, as the nearby maintained school. As a small school, with just 700 students, TIBHS will want to form partnerships with other local schools to share expertise, resources and to be as efficient as possible.

Upsetting the status quo

However, perhaps free schools are actually feared precisely because they are understood. For years, our educational system has been run for the benefit of the producer. Local authorities, unions and schools themselves have had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, even when that means half of our students leave secondary school without good qualifications in English and maths. For the first time, free schools offer a radically different approach. They put the consumer in charge. Young people and parents are at the heart of making decisions about the kind of school they want and are not frustrated by bureaucracy and vested interests.

Perhaps, also, free schools are feared because people understand that genuine parental choice and empowerment means standards have to be better in all schools. Poorly performing and coasting schools will need to awake from their slumber or face being washed away by the tide of newly empowered communities. At TIBHS, we want all our learners to be grounded in the service of their community, but to have the grandest of ambitions. We want some of our learners to skip A-levels and access university at 16, while others could start a business while still at school.

So, maybe free schools are not opposed because some don't know enough about them, but precisely because they do. And, as we grapple with the enormous workload of getting started for next September's opening, many other communities up and down the country will hope to seize the moment.

Hamid Patel is principal and chief executive of Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School.

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