Tristram Hunt, Labour’s new Shadow Education Secretary, is doing what opposition politicians inevitably do: namely, pursuing Ministers – though it is very unlikely that the trail he is investigating leads to a scandal. He claims that the Department for Education was warned about problems at the Al Madinah Free School in Derby before OFSTED made an official inspection. The Department for Education says that it took note of the warnings and discussed the matter with OFSTED – which then made its inspection and closed the school.
Ministers would doubtless add that Hunt wouldn’t be so active were the school in question not a free school. But whether this is true or not, events at Al Madinah throw a penetrating light on the question: “Localism: how far should you go?” The nub of the allegations against the school is that “women and girls are treated less favourably than men and boys”, in the words of Lord Nash, the Education Minister, although the specific breaches of the funding agreement that he alleged were less eye-catching. For example, he claims that the school was “delivering an unacceptably poor standard of education”.
But whatever has happened at Al Madinah – the Derby Telegraph reports that the school has now lifted its requirement on women teachers to cover their hair – the moral of the story is that localism has limits. Different people will draw the line in different places. Some, for example, would say that schools shouldn’t be able to instruct teachers to wear the hijab, or headscarf. I would say that this is a matter for them (as is whether or not they choose to ban the niqab, or veil, on the ground that its use is a barrier to learning). However, a line should be drawn at discriminating against girl pupils: that way lies the Taliban.
Ultimately, there must always be a national standard, in schools or elsewhere – even if this is as minimal as simply ensuring that the law of the land is applied. There is scarcely a politician alive who won’t nod when told that “power should be devolved to local communities”. But what, to follow a train of thought sparked by the Al Madinah controversy, were a majority in an area to demand the application of what is mistakenly labelled “shariah” (i.e: a pre-modern idea of state law rejected by most Muslims in Britain)? Mind-stretchingly unlikely – but the thought makes the point.