Ofsted’s leaked report on Al-Mahdina School in Derby is the most damning in the organisation’s 20-year history. The school is described as “dysfunctional”, with weaknesses in nearly every area of teaching and governance. The teaching, outside Year 2 and Islamic Studies, is a catalogue of inadequacies, and children’s writing is getting worse instead of better. A temporary head, who has some idea of what he is doing, has arrived too late to save it, and is, in any event, temporary. Previously notorious school failures – Hackney Downs, William Tynedale, Risinghill – are not in the same league.
And yet we saw it coming. In 2010, Policy Exchange published a report, Faith Schools We Can Believe In. It was the outcome of a year’s research by a multi-disciplinary team, with the participation of former Labour minister Ruth Kelly. Ruth Kelly is a prominent Catholic, and we had Muslim and Jewish members. I was a neutral in this company, having been converted to Voltaire’s view of the world by reading Candide at an early age. Our recommendations that the Secretary of State should have extensive powers over the governance of new schools, with fast track inspection and closure powers in cases of abuse, were incorporated into legislation.
We had little doubt that they would have to be used. Local authority hegemony was education’s Berlin Wall, and breaking it down would, as Dominic Cummings pointed out, lead to some failures. I had doubts about the educational ideas of Rudolf Steiner, and about basing schools on Montessori principles beyond the early years. Both have been justified.
The big issue, though, was how to deal with Islamic extremism, which is licensed to dissimulate in order to achieve its goals. I had previously been fooled myself into supporting a small organisation with an unassuming name that I discovered, much later, to be affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. I was not the only one taken in – its organiser very nearly talked his way into the House of Lords – but we needed to ensure that this would not happen again.
In the event, it proved impossible. There are, to be sure, some Christian Fundamentalists who disagree with Darwin and might teach nonsense in science lessons, but they are not hard to identify, not least because they tend to broadcast what they do. Long-term, covert infiltration and mysterious sources of large anonymous donations, particularly in cash, are often impossible to detect in advance.
So swift remedies were needed, and are being used. The schools that are failing are small, and have not had time to do as much damage as the huge local authorities that have blighted children’s future for decades through errors such as the button-pushing approach to technology and the promotion of guessing-game theories of reading. We thought that failing new schools that did not improve within a period of around a fortnight should be closed immediately. The Secretary of State is also in a position to ensure that those connected with their management and governance are excluded from all further participation in free schools or academies.