The new free school policy makes it possible for parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own schools, along with the freedom to decide the length of school day and term, the curriculum, teacher pay and how budgets are spent.
Nevertheless, British Education Secretary Michael Gove has explicitly stated that Muslim fundamentalists would not be allowed to set up free schools, and the Department of Education has established guidelines to discourage Muslim separatism. As a result, many Muslim groups seeking to establish free schools have been marketing themselves as “inter-faith” schools in an effort to qualify for government funding.
The Al-Madinah School — which originally marketed itself as an “inter-faith” school to qualify for taxpayer monies — promised that at least 50% of its students would be non-Muslim. After it obtained £1.4 million (€1.7 million; $2.25 million) in government financing, however, the administrators of Al-Madinah switched gears and began operating the school according to Islamic law, apparently to ensure that the school would be 100% Muslim.
In an interview with the BBC, the Al-Madinah School’s interim principal, Stuart Wilson, said, “Obviously the report doesn’t make pleasant reading for anybody. We don’t want to be in this position — we wish we weren’t in this position — but what we need to do now is to accept the report in full and use it to move the school forward.”
Wilson, a non-Muslim hired by the school apparently in an effort to assuage fears about Islamic fundamentalism, added that he believes the Al-Madinah School still has a future. “The school is on a journey,” he said. “There will need to be a school here for 412 children.”
The opposition Labour Party — which is staunchly opposed to the government’s free school program because it competes with the public school system — has seized upon the problems at Al-Madinah.
In an “urgent debate” at the House of Commons on October 17, the Labour Party’s shadow education secretary, Tristam Hunt, told MPs: “What today’s Ofsted report exposes is that the government’s free school program has become a dangerous free-for-all — an out-of-control ideological experiment…. It is a devastating blow to the education secretary’s flagship policy.”
But Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking on BBC Radio Derby, countered his critics: “Let’s not use this as a stick with which to beat the whole free school movement, because actually there are now hundreds of schools in our country that are set up as free schools and on average they have more outstanding ratings and more good ratings than established schools. So they are good things, but when it goes wrong — just as when a state school goes wrong — you’ve got to get in there, sort it out or close it down.”
In a separate but related matter, the Al-Madinah School is being investigated by the government over alleged financial irregularities. Speaking at the House of Commons debate, the minister for state schools, David Laws, told MPs: “At the end of July  we began a wide-ranging investigation into the financial management and governance of the [Al-Madinah] school. Our investigations did indeed find significant and numerous breaches of the conditions in its funding agreement.”
The local MP for Derby, Chris Williamson, has called for the school to be closed down completely: “Frankly, the position of Al-Madinah school is now untenable and I would fully expect the school to close and for the children to be found alternative places in the council schools in the city.”
But the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission says critics of the school of are guilty of “appalling Islamophobia.” The emphasis on “ostensibly illiberal Islamic practices is proof of a continuing witch-hunt against Islamic faith schools in general that has as its aim the discrediting of the whole Muslim school sector,” the group said in a statement.
About the Author: The writer is the Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group, one of the oldest and most influential foreign policy think tanks in Spain.
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