Yesterday, a Muslim free school in Derby was closed after the first day of an Ofsted investigation. The investigation was prompted over concerns that the Al-Madinah free school was imposing strict Islamic practices on its staff and students. The Education Funding Agency, which funds free schools, is also investigating alleged financial irregularities.
The Al-Madinah school has recently received a considerable amount of negative media attention over allegations that it enforces a strict dress code, segregates sexes in the classroom (with girls sitting at the back of the room) and over-emphasises Islamic studies and prayers over national curriculum subjects. Last month, a former teacher at the school said she left her teaching position because she was “hassled” about not dressing modestly enough, and refusing to wear a hijab outside the classroom.
On the school’s website, the Interim Principal G.S. Wilson says the school was closed over “health and safety” issues, but expects it to reopen “in the very near future”. On the website, the Al-Madinah school is described as having a “strong Muslim ethos.” The site also states that the school’s Islamic studies program has an “‘opt-out’ choice for parents who do not want their child(ren) to be part of it.”
Terry Sanderson, the President of the National Secular Society commented on the closure:
"If half of the stories that have been appearing in the press are true, schools like Al-Madinah have no place in the British education system. If it has fallen under the control of people who have an agenda that does not accord with the values of the British education system, then they should be removed immediately and replaced by those with a more balanced approach."
Free schools in England are state funded, but operate outside local authority control. They can be set up by individuals and organisations with the approval of the Department of Education.
The English free schools are based on the “Swedish model” of friskola, and were first introduced after the Conservatives’ 2010 election victory. But, the English model has failed to follow its Swedish example in one crucial way: In August 2010, a new education act bound Swedish free schools to the national curriculum. The new act also mandated that the lessons in free schools must be objective, factual and not contain any religious elements. This reform took place over concerns that fundamentalist faith groups were taking advantage of the friskolor’s freedoms. In England, the supposedly Swede-minded free schools do not need to follow the national curriculum – as long as they offer a “balanced and broadly based curriculum” they are free to decide what and how to teach.
But even with controlled curricula, it can be questioned if free schools are the key to raising education standards. In Sweden, the friskola system has again recently come under criticism. Swedish free schools have been accused of trying to attract students by emphasising popular courses that do not meet the demands of the job market, and even by rewarding students with easier grades. Gabriel Sahlgren, a researcher at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London sums up the problem in Sweden: "Right now there are greater incentives for schools to inflate grades than to improve the quality of education."
These issues are mainly attributed to the for-profit schools, which are also increasingly facing financial difficulties. In May, one of the largest private school operators in the country filed for bankruptcy and was forced to sell 19 of its schools and close the remaining four. Profit-making free schools are not currently allowed in England, but the education secretary Michael Gove has said he is open-minded about opening this possibility – in fact, the Conservatives are expected to include a proposal to allow the practice in their 2015 election manifesto.
Yesterday’s closure of the Al-Madinah school suggests a need for better control of England’s free schools. The current freedom the founders have over a free school’s policies and curriculum can leave pupils vulnerable to substandard teaching, lacking knowledge and even ideological coercion. But, as the Swedish experience suggests, even governmental regulation of free schools’ educational content is not a miracle cure for all their troubles. The English decision-makers need to now take a good look at their Scandinavian role model to avoid repeating its mistakes.