The government has committed a further £1 million to fund Ofsted’s team that investigates illegal schools, despite the watchdog still failing to bring a single prosecution against an unregistered school.
Initially funded for one year, the illegal schools team was created after former chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw last year warned that pupils in hidden schools were at “significant risk of harm and indoctrination”.
Negotiations over renewing the funding – which runs until the end of this month – had dragged on since at least mid-December.
But Ofsted announced on Wednesday that funding had been agreed for another year and will support seven specialist inspectors to continue rooting out unregistered schools.
Schools Week understands it is close to the £1 million sanctioned by former education secretary Nicky Morgan last year, although the Department for Education (DfE) refused to confirm this.
We need to make an impact very, very quickly and act as quickly as we can with the DfE and the local authority
Meanwhile, it was reported last month the team had identified 170 suspected illegal schools said to be attended by up to 3,000 pupils. The Independent reported just 21 had been shut.
Legal cases are also being prepared, but Schools Week understands the watchdog is yet to deliver a successful prosecution. All the cases sent by Ofsted to the Criminal Prosecution Service so far have been knocked back.
The government previously said it is attempting to toughen up rules around illegal schools, and make enforcement action easier.
But Victor Shafiee, Ofsted’s deputy director, unregistered schools, reportedly said last month that he was “optimistic” about “a number of cases” against illegal schools.
“If I thought this was going to take 10 years [to fix] I would be really, really disappointed. It’s not.
“We need to make an impact very, very quickly and act as quickly as we can with the DfE and the local authority.”
Wilshaw had previously said he was “concerned that not enough is being done to stop this illegal activity”, acknowledging it was difficult to build a legal case to prosecute such schools.
Speaking before the funding agreement was reached this week, he told Schools Week the taskforce was doing a “great job in identifying a growing number of illegal schools and preparing the evidence for prosecutions”.
He added: “I would be astonished if the DfE decided to withdraw or curtail funding for what should be an absolute government priority – keeping children safe by ensuring that they attend mainstream provision subject to regulation and inspection.”
We’re very pleased that the DfE has agreed to provide funding for the unregistered schools taskforce
He first raised alarm bells about illegal schools in a letter to Morgan in November 2015. The watchdog had been requested to inspect 28 schools and found 15 were operating illegally.
His most recent letter to the former education secretary in May last year said inspectors were “hearing about suspected new cases every week”.
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “We’re very pleased that the DfE has agreed to provide funding for the unregistered schools taskforce for another year, allowing Ofsted to continue this very important work.”
The DfE did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson has previously said: “Unregistered schools are illegal and unsafe. We have given
Ofsted additional resources to root them out and we will take action, including closing the school or working with the police as necessary.Where children are being put at risk or not receiving a suitable education, local authorities and the police have clear powers to intervene.”