Setting things to rights – my take on Free schools and Governance.

The Summer Term 2014 across the country is girding its loins. For those at primary school, a packed term of all-sorts lies ahead, though those at secondary level have the many faceted joys of public exams to assist in concentrating the mind. And they are starting so quickly after the May bank holiday, it’s no wonder some parents worry about having to pay tuition fees for a Summer term in which their child’s experience could be little more than 5 weeks in a hall. For those of us that work in the private sector, it behoves us to ensure that we do offer much more than a little bit of supervision and TLC for their phones.

As just over 24,000 schools return to work, those in Birmingham are subject to one of the closest 4 way scrutinies ever seen in the UK, in respect to the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations to oust some Birmingham head teachers and make their schools adhere to more Islamic principles   Not only have 25 schools been subject to instant Ofsted inspections last month, but Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Police and the DfE have also conducted investigations.  It is no wonder that OfSted’s Sir  Michael Wilshaw is travelling up there this week to take over the latest Ofsted report writing, summarising their findings; he and his colleagues are pitted against the DfE whose boss, Michael Gove clearly doesn’t trust Wilshaw anyway, hence the appointment of the former national head of counter terrorism, Peter Clarke, an ex-deputy assistant commissioner of the Met, to lead an inquiry into 25 Birmingham schools over allegations of a hard-line Islamist takeover plot (the same one, how odd). It is no wonder that the appointment of Clarke was described as “desperately unfortunate” by the chief constable of West Midlands Police, Chris Sims, not just because of the public sensitivities attached to schools with significant majorities of muslim pupils, but also because Mr Sims had previously declared that, following his own force’s investigations, there was no police interest in the matter. He’ll look pretty silly if criminal activity is confirmed, won’t he?

Judging from the reaction by Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood, who states that 20 headteachers in his Perry Barr constituency alone – “virtually all Muslim heads” – had raised concerns about potential plots, there is ‘fire’ to go with the ‘smoke’. And there appear to be links outside ‘Brum’, beyond the leakage of the Trojan Horse plot to a Yorkshire sympathiser back in March.  New allegations are surfacing involving schools outside Birmingham, including the Laisterdyke Business and Enterprise College in Bradford. It emerged on Monday that Laisterdyke’s entire governing body has been sacked by Bradford council amid concerns over poor performance and a “dysfunctional” relationship between governors, including two city councillors, and management. Mrs Jen McIntosh, Laisterdyke’s female, white headteacher is thought to have complained of coming under pressure to quit by a few influential, hardline Muslim governors, who in return firmly deny trying to oust her.

Excerpts from Inspection reports have started to leak out, as reported very helpfully by Andrew Gilligan of the Daily Telegraph yesterday , and things really don’t look good.

Setting things to rights

So what’s James’ beef, I hear you say?  Throughout the accredited independent sector of ISC schools, we have put in place a remarkable breadth of provision to assist Governing bodies, their Headteachers and senior managers in their stewardship of schools. You’ll know it is not easy to meet regulatory standards in our sector, and you can search readily for performance information on our schools, their governing bodies and leadership teams using the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s website – http://www.isi.net/reports/.  New schools seeking to join our movement are required to jump through a serious number of hoops, including meetings with headteachers, inspections and so forth, visits by association heads tasked to check things on the ground match words written on paper. After all, reputational damage is not something any of us wish to suffer through poor oversight.

And therein lies the rub. Because a very good deal of the policies put in place by the current coalition government, during Michael Gove’s tenure as Secretary of State for Education, seems to have been established without appropriate scrutiny and independent oversight, and specifically that of Governance. The Birmingham investigations are highlighting inappropriate appointments, nepotism and cronyism, fraud and worse. These don’t on the face of it appear different to the reasons for closure of Al-Madinah Free school in Derby at the end of this term, where the Ofsted report in October found the Muslim faith school was chaotic, dysfunctional and inadequate and placed it in special measures.

Mr Gove bought his set of ‘Free school’ ideas from Sweden, and it is almost a year since one of the largest operators in Sweden, JB education, announced it was closing down its operations there, affecting some 10,000 students, citing financial losses as the reason for withdrawing from the market. Indeed a rival Swedish company, IES, run (£21 million pound contract over 10 years) a UK school, Breckland School, recently put into special measures by Ofsted, and the other Swedish group, Learning Schools Trust has been barred from running more schools by DfE. This Daily Telegraph article reminds us that LST and other of the large Academy chains are in trouble for poor academic standards as well as financial irregularities, with E-ACT forced to hand back to DfE 10 of its 34 schools. Again, nothing was initially put in place to check Governance. And actually, now that Wilshaw is keen to scrutinise chains etc., guess who’s really not keen – Gove! Read more on that in this Guardian article.  It seems that Gove-rnance is something that doesn’t agree with independent scrutiny.

It gets worse. As Academisation grips the country even more forcefully, there can be no doubt that further appalling tales of fraud and malfeasance will surface, such as these in Durham, Bradford and Crawley announced this April. Hardly a Fool’s day joke, but a growing litany of failure arising from a national strategy implemented by a government that failed to ensure appropriate project oversight. That’s not to say there are not plenty of DfE officials now looking after those schools DfE directly manages –  but it does look as though Mr Gove himself is having to intercede all too often to keep the ‘solids from hitting the fans’. Channel 4 Home affairs correspondent, Darshna Sony highlighted last weekend growing issues with the Madani schools in Leicester, where MG has asked Leicester City Council to pressurise the Boys’ school to withdraw an advert which stated that only male teachers could apply.  Let’s be clear about this – in my work I seek to support a society that treats everyone equally and that openly challenges those that would approve of mysogeny or gender-based discrimination. Please do read a little of the work being led by Muslim women, who ask our Society to ‘Honour my voice’ – http://www.wewillinspire.com/

I quote: “There is no honour in denying women their rights on the basis of gender and then also telling them to keep silent about it”

In summary, it is about time that those in charge at DfE and Ofsted talked openly and at some length with our sector and its Inspectorate about how we steward some 1,257 of the nation’s schools, at no cost to the exchequer, looking after 511,928 pupils in January 2014, and with an extraordinary, positive impact upon GDP – ISC research info. Genuinely, I feel as if our accredited sector could have handled most of the Free school initiatives at a fraction of the cost and extended our provision to give parents that greater freedom to choose a school fit for their child. As an Independent School Proprietor, I know what I value in my independence, and what I require of the society in which I work to ensure that we build a better future together. I am more than alarmed by the growing dismantlement of local education authorities without a parallel, accountable, transparent set of arrangements to ensure School leaders, Governors and Headteachers, could be held to account by their peers. That’s precisely what the ISC Associations do, and with considerable skill.

 

Out of the gloom

A voice said unto me

“Smile and be happy,

Things could be worse.”

So I smiled and was happy

And behold, things did get worse.

 

 

 

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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