DfE proposes legal definition of ‘full-time’ education

The government is seeking to define what constitutes full-time education in law for the first time, as part of efforts to clamp down on the operation of illegal schools.

The Department for Education has launched a consultation which proposes to “expand on and more clearly define what full-time institutions are” under the law.

It means settings attended by pupils for at least 18 hours per seven-day week will have to be registered.

Efforts to tackle institutions that provide education but fail to register with the government as schools have been hampered in recent years by a lack of clarity of the issue.

Ofsted’s illegal schools task force has spent millions of pounds and investigated hundreds of potentially illegal settings since it was launched in 2016, yet only a handful of cases have gone to trial.

In its consultation, the DfE said its proposed changes to the law would define the scope of settings “in terms of the key criteria of numbers of children and hours of attendance”.

The department has settled on 18 hours as a threshold as this is “in keeping with its current practice”, and this threshold will be applied across seven days rather than Monday to Friday.

According to the consultation, the hours threshold would draw a “clear line for registration”, although the department does accept that proprietors “could continue to deliberately organised provision to fall just below the threshold”.

The DfE said there would also a need “to stipulate that at least some of that attendance is in usual school hours and to define what that term means”, in order to exclude settings that do not provide the “main part” of a child’s education, or those that operate outside a normal school day.

And some institutions, such as holiday clubs and outdoor centres, are likely to continue to be exempt from having to register.

The changes would also need to address “the issue of the nature of the education provided” to address a current problem whereby some settings with a narrow curriculum do not meet the existing definition of a school and are therefore not subject to regulation.

Last year, inspectors from Ofsted’s illegal schools task force described the “appalling” conditions at unregistered settings visited.

Inspectors described visiting settings with “open sewers”, “exposed electrical work” and “holes in walls and floors”, and renewed their appeal for greater powers to take action against schools which operate illegally.

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  1. Mark Watson

    When you set a clear definition for something like this the devil is in the detail, and you lose the ability to enforce ‘the spirit’ of the principle.

    The current rules say that 18 hours is a rough rule-of-thumb way of deciding if you are providing full time education but it’s not the be all and end all.

    Fixing the definition will make it easier for Ofsted to prosecute people for running unregistered schools, but also easier for individuals to avoid prosecution. My view is that those people who innocently trip over the line because they don’t understand the rules will be victims of Ofsted’s over zealousness, whereas those people who we should be stopping (fundamentalist education provided in dangerous settings) will be smart enough to go right up to the line, but not over it.