The Ofsted report into the Al-Madinah school in Derby is damning. Extremely damning. Inspectors highlighted a catalogue of shortcomings that have resulted in the school being taken into special measures. Every single category that Ofsted examine was rated ‘inadequate’ and the school, which only opened last year, was described as ‘dysfunctional’. This is not good. Not good for the Al-Madinah Educational Trust who run the school, not good for Michael Gove and his flagship free schools programme and most of all not good for the children who go there.
Of particular interest (and concern) to me, as a founder of another free school that opened a year later, the report singled out the weaknesses and ineffectiveness of the school’s governing body.
Whilst I do not believe that this incident proves one way or another whether free schools are a good or a bad idea, it does highlight inadequacies of the current process. I find it simply incomprehensible that a free school applicant’s governing body can be so obviously lacking and still pass through the process in being allowed to open. Having been through the process myself, I do not know how this could have gone unnoticed. Whilst I would not necessarily say that the interrogation of governor capabilities was as rigorous as I had expected it to be, I still wonder how they could have actually managed to get the school opened without being more competent.
It may have something to do with who is actually doing the setting up. In our experience, as a group of parents, we had not organisational backing or resources to draw on. We had to do everything ourselves. This did make it hard and it could well mean that areas with less resources and capabilities are not able to establish their own schools. But the upside, I suppose, is that it meant we had to be sufficiently competent and capable to set up a school – which stood us in good stead to actually oversee the running of the school. [Quick health-warning: we haven’t had our first Ofsted inspection…so we’ll see what happens then! And if I have to eat humble pie, I will happily do so!]
However, I have to say that from my experience of governance in other schools (maintained and academies), I wonder whether the standard of governance is sufficiently high. I have attended a number of training sessions for governors and been deeply unimpressed by the level of knowledge and expertise among many school governors. They were unaware of the basic fundamentals of good governance and the ‘Nolan principles’ of public office. The did not understand how they should hold their headteacher and senior leadership team to account and provide a balance of support and challenge.
My (far greater) experience of charity governance is of a generally higher standard, with trustees on boards I have worked with and sat on, overall far better informed. I am aware that this is by no means a definitive sample or scientific survey. But it does make me wonder whether we have to address the school governance – not just in free schools but across the board.
I believe this incident highlights weaknesses in the free school process but also issues with governance more widely. It does not, to me, demonstrate that free schools are right, or wrong. But rather that we need to support parents and local people who are prepared to put themselves forward to act in the interests of their community, so that they can fulfil their role adequately and effectively.