Distant learning

There is something seriously wrong with the way schools in the north east are dealt with by the London authorities. And the case of the Durham Free School has dramatically highlighted this.

Giving evidence before the House of Commons Education Select Committee (28 January 2015), the chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, reported that “there was very, very bad homophobic bullying going on” at Durham Free School, as well as at one other free school here in the north east. And yet there is not one single mention of homophobic bullying in the Ofsted report of the school. Where did Sir Michael get that from? Although under oath, he seems to have gone well beyond any evidence offered by his inspectors. Did he just make it up?

The Ofsted report is a terrible, damning document, which seems to bear no resemblance to the school, in case anyone from London should have cared to visit. It’s worth noting that the worst behaviour the Ofsted inspectors actually witnessed was a couple of kids chatting in class, oh and one doodling. Indeed, many parents I’ve spoken to indicated that a major reason why they chose the Durham Free School was precisely because their child had been bullied in other Durham schools, but nothing had been done about it. So they had applied to Durham Free School because it has a reputation for tolerance and no bullying.


One mother who said she was a lesbian told me that her daughter had been badly bullied at another school precisely because of her mother’s sexual orientation. Thankfully, she was welcomed into Durham Free School and was now comfortable and happy – well at least until now. A Chinese mother said that her child had been subject to racial bullying elsewhere, but had found a safe haven in the Durham Free School.

During the course of the Ofsted inspection, children reported that the inspectors behaved in a manner that seemed to them – and their parents – singularly inappropriate. Asking kids of 12 years old or younger questions like (as reported to school governors) “Do you feel comfortable in your own body?” and “What would you do if someone gay came to this school?” strikes many of us as odd things to be addressing in a mathematics class.

Never mind, Sir Michael from the safety of London can say that “We have investigated those allegations and those allegations are false”. How did he investigate them? He certainly didn’t come anywhere near the north east and ask the children and parents directly affected. Perhaps the inspectors had told him that they not asked any inappropriate questions? To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Now London intervenes again. This time Secretary of State Nicky Morgan announces the school will be closed for ever from Easter. Has she no idea of the impact that will have on the school’s vulnerable children? Many are there because they cannot handle the big comprehensive schools in Durham. Many have been badly bullied in those schools already. Imagine what it will be like for them. Joining any school in the summer term is horrible in any case. Everyone else will already have their friends, their cliques. They will have learnt different things too, be advanced in some areas, behind in others. But worse, everyone will know that the newcomers are refugees from Durham Free School, and you can see the delight kids will get in berating them for that.

Did the politicians in London think this one through? It seems completely heartless if they are prepared to inflict that sort of suffering on kids. I hope it’s not because the kids here are too far away to worry about.

James Tooley is professor of education policy at Newcastle University. You can follow him on Twitter.

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One thought on “Distant learning

  1. I am very impressed with James Tooley’s article which shows great insight and compassion into a truly heartrending situation. It is so easy to make these harsh decisions at Westminster hundreds of miles away from a wonderful little school which has brought hope and joy to so many children. This is without mentioning the parents, teachers and ancillary staff who have showed tireless dedication and loyalty. I was amazed at how glowing the reports about this school were, even from complete strangers like a lady serving in Sainsbury’s Delicatessen who extolled its virtues. This school was financed and pushed through under Michael Gove so why has Nicky Morgan become so disenchanted with her predecessor’s favoured project? It does not reflect well on the Government if this school hasn’t received the necessary support it must have needed during its first year of existence. I am devastated by the closure of this school although I am not a parent or teacher and have no vested interest apart from my desire for a Christian Secondary school in Durham.

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