The Ofsted report about Al-Madinah free school in Derby does not make for comfortable reading – the schools is “dysfunctional”, leadership and management (as well as all other key criteria) are “inadequate”, the governing body is “ineffective” and the school “has not reconciled its budget and does not know whether it is carrying forward a surplus or a deficit”. It is, in truth, one of the worst Ofsted reports I have read, and I cannot see any scenario in which the school will remain open.
As a strong free school supporter, I have spent much of the day discussing the school – both on mainstream media and on Twitter. Much of this was started by a typically searing blog from the estimable Laura McInerney last night, in which she declares that there are wider systemic lessons to be learned from the Al-Madinah failure, and all of this was terribly predictable.
So what can we learn- and not learn – from the failure of Al-Madinah?
First things first – this failure does not “expose the fact that the Government’s free school programme has become a dangerous free for all, an out-of-control, ideological experiment”, as Tristram Hunt rather dramatically claimed this morning. This type of rhetoric is unhelpful, and especially so in the light of the more positive tone he struck a few days previously. Policy failure cannot be determined from one operational failure, just as I could not argue that the fact that 3% of both primary and secondary schools across England are rated inadequate means that the maintained school system is a ‘dangerous free for all’ that should be stopped. I would hope that over time, Tristram Hunt and Labour’s line on this would mature into something more sensible.
There is stronger ground to argue that this exposes an institutional weakness in implementation. Laura McInerney writes that there are five lessons that should be learned from Al-Madinah: the application process is questionable; the decision to allow unqualified teachers is wrong; a middle tier is needed to support schools in trouble; there needs to be a process for closure; and there is an issue of payment. I agree with elements of this, and disagree with others.
Firstly, it is really important to reiterate the principle that government does not operate a zero failure regime when it comes to public services. This is for three main reasons: most importantly, such a goal would be rife with perverse incentives – if schools (or other public services) knew that they could never fail, then there would be considerably less incentive to exercise caution or strive for the highest levels of performance, safe in the knowledge that the state would always step in. Secondly, the bureaucratic regulation needed to manage such a system would also be suffocating – if you think that schools complain about regulation now, this would be nothing in comparison. Lastly, on a pragmatic point, zero failure is also, given the number of organisations operating in England, impossible to deliver in practice.
Non zero failure is a pretty uncomfortable issue to deal with, because it means accepting that schools, hospitals, care homes and other important public services will occasionally close due to poor performance, and Ministers tend to be relatively squeamish about mentioning this too explicitly. But as the Open Public Services White Paper sets out: “it is nevertheless inevitable that some providers – both new and existing – will be unable to meet the rising minimum standards that Government expects of them”. Anyone who pretends that there is a system for free schools – or indeed for Local Authority commissioned schools – where there will not be instances of financial or operational failure, is, to paraphrase, ‘entirely wrong’.
So there will be failure – that is inevitable, and everything that the Government does and does not do needs to be seen through that lens. So with regard to free schools (and using Al Madinah as an example), I would argue that the role of Government is to focus on three things:
- Get the approval process right. I think Laura is absolutely right when she identifies weaknesses in the overall application process for free schools – most notably for the 2011 openers, where policy was so new, and the timetables for opening so tight, that the process was flawed – but also potentially for the 2012 openers, of which Al-Madinah was one (full disclosure: as was Greenwich Free School, of which I am a co-founder and Chair of Governors). It is not clear at all to proposers (or wider taxpayers) what the success criteria are and it is not clear why new schools have or have not been recommended for approval. Neither is it clear what the due diligence process is for assessing the suitability of groups more broadly.
My own proposal for this would be a much more transparent process based on the model of large scale public procurement processes – where the commissioner (in this case, DfE) sets out the explicit criteria for success for their tender, ascribes weighting to each of these (for example, 40% of the marks will be allocated to the educational model, 40% to the financial model, and 20% to the capacity and capability of the leadership team and proposer group), and gives clear scores back to each group explaining how they were assessed and if appropriate, in which areas they fell below the minimum standards.
DfE have claimed that the 2013 process for approvals is much more rigorous – including due diligence – but transparency is still lacking in this regard, which does not aid confidence in the system
- Have a clear system for monitoring schools when they are open. Laura writes that “Ofsted can’t be everywhere. So when things go awry, the school will limp on until Ofsted arrives again (which could be a period of years)”. But this is not strictly true – Ofsted has powers to conduct immediate monitoring visits when they are alerted to serious problems, as does the EfA.. Indeed, this type of extraordinary intervention is exactly what happened in this scenario. It is not clear exactly when the government was first alerted to the problems in Derby, but the issue has been in general media attention for only a few weeks, and already Ofsted has reported and Lord Nash has set out the criteria for assessing the school’s continued existence, including improvement needed. Could a Local Authority have been alerted to these issues quicker and intervened more swiftly? We obviously can’t say. But it is worth noting that LAs do not have an unblemished record, to put it mildly, with tackling underperforming schools – two thirds of them have never issued a Warning Notice to schools detailing concerns around standards, including two of the three Authorities which have the highest proportion of the schools ranked Inadequate.
The unqualified teachers policy also comes under criticism. As I said on the radio this lunchtime, I don’t think this is necessarily the case – if Academies and free schools want to hire unqualified staff (and I think this will always be a minority percentage) then I can see a place for them. The reason that the Al-Madinah staff have delivered Inadequate teaching is as much about poor leadership and oversight as it is about their qualifications or otherwise. Again, we can point to poor examples of teaching in schools delivered by fully qualified teachers. This one example should not be used more broadly.
Many people have also used this issue to call for the introduction of some form of middle tier – a series of reports have been published making this point. I am sympathetic to this argument – it is clearly absurd for DfE to monitor thousands of Academies and hundreds of Free Schools from London. And despite my belief that DfE has intervened swiftly in this instance, it is still not clear how information on possible failures can flow reliably to the Secretary of State – relying on whistleblower reports, as seems to be the case with Al Madinah, is a profoundly unsatisfactory solution from a policy point of view. The devil with such a solution is very much in the detail – on which there is less consensus – but as a principle, it is hard to argue against.
- Deal quickly and efficiently with closure. Laura thinks that “there is confusion over funding agreements and Ofsted’s right to revoke a founder group’s ability to run a school”. But I would argue the process is still quite straightforward. For maintained schools, the Secretary of State has the power (under the 2011 Education Act) to direct a Local Authority to close a school. For Academies (and Free Schools), the power is vested in the Secretary of State (not Ofsted) through the Funding Agreement (articles 82 to 88). This decision is (in theory) judicially reviewable, but the process and direction is quite clear. The Secretary of State also has powers to remove a school from an Academy Trust and hand it to a new sponsor – this is likely in practice to be the most common solution to failing Academies and free schools because it avoids outright closure and the need to reallocate pupils, even if I suspect it will not be used in Al-Madinah’s case. Laura is correct when she says this will come at a financial cost to the state – Members and Directors of an Academy Trust have limited liability unless it can be proved they have acted negligently, and so in all likelihood costs of redundancy, contract termination penalties will be borne by the government. Again, the Funding Agreement is relatively clear on this (articles 98 to 103) although it has obviously never been tested in practice.
As I have argued consistently today, free school supporters need to be as passionate and vocal as free school opponents in their condemnation of the events at Al-Madinah, and as demanding of action to address the failures – including some of the implementation issues around approval and monitoring raised here. But they must also not, as the PM said, allow this school to be used as a wider stick with which to beat the very principle of the free school programme.