DURHAM Free School, a 90-pupil secondary school with a Christian
foundation, is to close at Easter, after learning that its
government funding is to be withdrawn.
The move followed a snap OSTED inspection of four maintained
Christian schools in the north-east, in which Durham Free School,
and Grindon Hall Free School, Sunderland, formerly a fee-paying
independent, were placed in special measures.
Two of the four schools, however, retained their previous
ratings. Emmanuel College, Gateshead, kept its outstanding status,
and the inspection confirmed Blyth Academy as good.
The four schools are loosely connected because John Burn, a
retired head teacher and educational adviser to the Emmanuel
College Foundation, backed by businessman Peter Vardy, was chairman
of governors at Grindon Hall, and on the governing body of Durham
Free School. Mr Burn also chairs the Newcastle-based conservative
Evangelical Christian Institute.
The snap inspections were allegedly sparked by complaints made
to OFSTED by Peter Cantley, Durham Free School's first head
teacher, who was dismissed last autumn.
OFSTED's criticisms of Grindon Hall and Durham Free school
included weak leadership, and failures in teaching the subject
British Values, made compulsory last year after the Trojan-horse
inquiries. The values focus on social and religious tolerance.
Inspectors said that pupils did not adequately understand or
respect religions and lifestyles other than their own.
The head teacher of Grindon Hall, Chris Gray, who objects to the
findings, has lodged an official complaint with OFSTED about the
attitude of the inspectors. He acted, his letter to the Chief
Inspector says, after parents complained that their children had
been subjected to "intrusive and deeply personal questioning . . .
in group sessions". One parent said that her pre-teen daughter had
been asked what she understood about lesbianism.
The Christian Institute was considering taking legal action over
the way in which OFSTED inspectors are interpreting the British
Values agenda, the director, Colin Hart, said this week. "We are
waiting for the outcome of Grindon Hall's complaint before making a
decision," he said. The Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools had
made a similar objection, he said.
Concern that inspectors may be looking for contraventions of a
liberal social agenda, implied by the British Values proposals, is
mounting beyond the Christian Institute's conservative Evangelical
Last autumn, inspectors initially placed a Roman Catholic
voluntary aided school, St Benedict's, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk,
in special measures for failing adequately to educate pupils about
the dangers of extremism. The report was withdrawn within days
after a "quality assurance" check by senior OFSTED officials.
Critics suggest that faith schools are being targeted to avoid
complaints by Muslims that their schools, at least two of which
have been closed down, are being unfairly treated.
The Church of England's chief education officer, the Revd Nigel
Genders, has criticised the Government's current approach to the
British Values agenda. In a blog posted this week, he wrote: "The
experience of recent inspections suggests that OFSTED is
increasingly being required to make nuanced judgements about
aspects of school life where there are few, if any, guidelines.
"This is an unreasonable expectation to place on the inspectors
and is ultimately unfair on the schools and their pupils if we
haven't beforehand made clear what they are looking for. Without a
major rethink, the credibility of OFSTED's judgements will be
quickly undermined and we will lose a valuable asset for the
sector. . .
"Whilst OFSTED works out how it measures 'British Values', and
schools wonder how they might be downgraded for failing to promote
them, asking OFSTED to become the schoolroom security service is a
step too far."
A statement on the OFSTED website said that allegations against
inspectors who visited Grindon Hall were the subject of a formal
complaints procedure, and were being investigated. "To date we have
found no evidence that inspectors failed to act with care and
sensitivity, and to ask age-appropriate questions as they have been
trained to do."
Inspectors who visited Durham Free School, the statement added,
found that a culture had been allowed to develop where it was
acceptable for racist, sexually derogative and homophobic language
to be used without adequate challenge from leaders.
School closure questioned. During an
adjournment debate on Durham Free School on Tuesday, MPs from the
north-east called for full public disclosure of the reasons to
close the school. The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, said that, as
well as the OFSTED report, serious concerns had been detailed by
the Education Funding Agency.
Leader comment, page 14
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