A taxpayer-funded Muslim school in England that was recently exposed for operating according to Islamic Sharia law has been condemned by government inspectors as being “dysfunctional” and “in chaos.”
Ofsted, the official agency for inspecting British schools, launched an urgent investigation into the Al-Madinah School in Derby, an industrial city in central England, after it emerged that Islamic fundamentalists running the school ordered all female teachers — including those who are not Muslim — to cover their heads and shoulders with a hijab, an Islamic scarf.
In addition to the strict dress code, pupils at the school, have been banned from singing songs, playing musical instruments, or reading fairy tales, activities deemed to be “un-Islamic,” according to non-Muslim staff members at the school.
When teaching children the alphabet, staff are prohibited from associating the letter ‘P’ with the word “pig.” Female staff are banned from wearing jewelry and are instructed to avoid shaking hands with male teachers to prevent “insult.”
The revelations about the un-British goings-on at the Al-Madinah School — the working conditions at the school have been compared to “being in Pakistan” — have fueled outrage over what some are calling underhanded attempts to establish a parallel Islamic education system in Britain.
The Ofsted inspection of Al-Madinah, which was originally scheduled to take place in late 2013, was brought forward to October 1-2 after it emerged that Muslim fundamentalists had taken control of the school.
On the first day of the inspection, officials found so many problems that they closed down the school entirely while the investigation continued.
Inspectors found, for example, that a one-hour-long arithmetic lesson consisted almost entirely of pupils cutting out and pasting different shapes. Inspectors also found that the only subject which taught crucial literacy skills was Islamic Studies.
Inspectors, however, cleared the school of allegations that it had been discriminating against girls by placing them at the back of the class. Inspectors also found that boys and girls had different lunch sittings due to the small size of the dining room.
The Ofsted inspection report, which was published on October 17, states: “This school is dysfunctional. The basic systems and processes a school needs to operate well are not in place. The school is in chaos and reliant on the goodwill of an interim principal to prevent it totally collapsing.” The report continues:
This is a school which has been set up and run by representatives of the [Muslim] community with limited knowledge and experience. Leadership and management, including governance, are inadequate and have been unable to improve the school.
Staff have been appointed to key roles for which they do not have qualifications and experience. For example, most of the primary school teachers have not taught before and the head of the primary school is experienced in teaching secondary-aged pupils only.
The hard-hitting report rates the Al-Madinah School as “inadequate” in all four inspection categories — achievement of pupils, quality of teaching, behavior and safety of pupils, and leadership and management. It concludes:
In accordance with the Education Act 2005, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is of the opinion that this school requires special measures because it is failing to give its pupils and acceptable standard of education and the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.
A school that is placed in special measures is subject to regular subject to regular short-notice Ofsted inspections to monitor its improvement. If conditions at the school do not improve within one year it may be closed. In the interim period, the school is eligible to obtain a significant increase in taxpayer money to help implement changes recommended by Ofsted.
The Al-Madinah School opened in September 2012 as a so-called free school, which is similar to a private school in that it operates beyond the control of local authorities, but is different from a private school in that its operations are paid for by British taxpayers.
Free schools were introduced by the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2011 based on the argument that such schools would create more competition for public schools and thus drive up educational standards.
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.