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Education Secretary Nicky Morgan confirmed on 27 February that she will close a Christian school in Durham

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Figure Image
Nicky Morgan visiting a school in London with David Cameron | photo: Press Association Images

This was despite hearing numerous petitions from parents, pupils and teachers.

John Denning, the Chair of Governors of The Durham Free School (TDFS), received a letter from the Department for Education stating: ‘The Secretary of State has considered your representations. She has also taken into account representations made in letters and emails from parents and pupils of TDFS and others. Having considered all these representations carefully, the Secretary of State remains satisfied that it is appropriate to terminate the Funding Agreement.’

Wrong conclusion

However, what has not been covered in the media reporting of the story is the detail surrounding the OFSTED report. While Christian groups’ reporting has avoided a detailed analysis of the report which paints a picture of a school in dire straits, mainstream media have focused on the ‘Christian’ elements of the school, almost at times aligning it with the ‘Trojan Horse’ schools in Birmingham.

However, even a brief look at John Denning’s detailed comments on the OFST-ED report on TDFS website*, leaves one with the view that the conclusion drawn by Nicky Morgan is wrong and that perhaps she didn’t read this representation of Denning’s very thoroughly.

This was the first full OFSTED inspection that the school had undergone since its opening. It was a ‘no notice’ inspection authorised by Nicky Morgan due to the allegations of a ‘whistle blower’ (identified to the acting Head by the OFSTED team as being the former Principal). The nature of those allegations, which still remain unknown by the school leadership, appeared to leave the OFSTED team with the impression they would find examples of religious extremism present. (One such question which highlighted this was that the school was asked how it was informing pupils about female genital mutilation which, with regard to the social make up of this particular school, was not a priority, as there are no pupils at risk of this practice as part of the school community.)

Inspectors prejudiced?

The inspectors may have also been prejudiced by an Education Funding Agency visit in the weeks leading up to the OFSTED inspection. Not only has TDFS never received a report from this visit, but they also questioned the competency of the people making that visit and their conduct during the visit. Denning fears that the OFSTED team may have been prejudicially influenced by the undisclosed results of this visit, and the undisclosed allegations by the ‘whistle blower’.

The nature of the questions the pupils were asked regarding sex and relationships has been widely covered (see en February, March). Some of this questioning took place in a room with one pupil and one inspector, and others after the formal student panel meeting was disbanding: this is of great concern from a procedural perspective. OFSTED claimed they ‘fully investigated’ these allegations by speaking to the inspectors involved. The question must be asked as to how ‘full’ an investigation this is, and it would be laughable was it not so serious. Who would want their child in a room, alone, being asked by a stranger ‘are you a virgin’ and then find the allegation was swept away without any evidence beyond the accused being spoken to. If such a serious allegation is so poorly investigated by OFSTED, then what trust can TDFS, or any school, have in any other judgment of OFSTED?

‘It wouldn’t take much’

There are numerous criticisms of the school in the report. Almost to the last, each of these was being addressed, or was in the management plan and future staff training to be addressed by the new management team.

Indeed, even the OFSTED team said that it ‘wouldn’t take much to turn the school around’ by the management team that OFSTED stated ‘were developing a clearer vision for the school’s future’.

Lawyers acting for The Durham Free School have already challenged the legality of Morgan’s announced withdrawal of funding from the school, saying that she had a ‘closed mind’ on the matter. The school submitted an 18-page legal challenge to the Department for Education stating that Morgan has prejudged the case. The challenge stated: ‘Our client has no confidence in your ability to make a fair, proportionate and lawful final decision in relation to the future of the school since you are not open to any representations.’

Parents and pupils who petitioned as to why the school should remain open must be devastated by the Secretary of State’s decision to close the school. From the outside, it seems that TDFS has received unfair treatment. From inside the school, it must be heart breaking.