In LGiU’s 2012 report Should we shed the middle tier?, we found a consensus amongst leading education specialists and stakeholders that central government alone cannot provide effective democratic accountability for the education system. With the expansion of academies and free schools, it was noted in our research that the Secretary of State alone is accountable for up to 24,000 schools and governing bodies. Our interviewees – who included Lucy Heller, Chief Executive of ARK (one of the country’s top-performing academy groups) and Cllr Jane Scott, Conservative Leader of Wiltshire County Council – agreed that a middle tier was a better source of accountability for free schools, and that there is a clear need for the local authority to take this role.
Many of the questions being raised at the moment about the failing al-Madinah free faith school come down to issues of oversight and accountability, which our report highlighted. Media interest was initially sparked by allegations that the school had asked non-Muslim female teachers to cover their hair, but following its damning Ofsted report leaked earlier this month, al-Madinah is now at the centre of a political row over free school experiment.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently in disarray over their stance on the education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship policy, showing how political the policy is. Over the weekend Nick Clegg attacked the use of unqualified teachers and said the national curriculum must be imposed on academies, in opposition to Gove’s policy and despite Liberal Democrat schools minister David Law’s earlier support. Labour’s shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt MP has also criticised parts of Gove’s policy, whilst re-stating his support for free schools. Gove has argued that just as there are failing state schools, there will be failing free schools, and the government is taking “rapid corrective action towards” al-Madinah.
The school’s problems are multiple. According to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, al-Madinah had “failed to ensure the safety of children at the school; delivered an unacceptably poor standard of education; discriminated in its policies and procedures towards female staff; and failed to discharge its duties and responsibilities in respect of the governing body”. The Ofsted report said the school had been set up and run by representatives of the community who had limited knowledge and experience, and that teachers “have been appointed to key roles for which they do not have qualifications”. In addition, the school was closed for a week after inspectors discovered that records showing whether staff were cleared to supervise children were either missing or incomplete.
This case raises questions and considerations for the Department for Education about how free schools are approved, who should be accountable for them and who should have oversight. These problems were discovered a year after the school was given the green light by the Secretary of State to open. Our research found strong support for a middle tier role for local authorities, carrying out functions of oversight and accountability – without encroaching on the autonomy of free schools. al-Madinah may well be one bad egg, or it might point to the need to re-think how we hold this new generation of free schools to account.