Duo in court as landmark ‘illegal school’ case begins

A learning centre for home-educated children taught pupils for more than 18 hours a week and set homework each night, despite not being registered as a school, a court heard today.

In a landmark case, senior district judge Emma Arbuthnot, the chief magistrate of England and Wales, is hearing the first prosecution of an unregistered school brought on behalf of the Department for Education, following evidence gathered by Ofsted’s illegal schools taskforce.

The legal action is widely seen as a test case for the government’s clampdown on unregistered settings.

Inspectors visited the Al-Istiqamah Learning Centre in Ealing, west London, twice last autumn after two failed attempts to inspect the provision in the summer. The inspections were part of action by Ofsted’s unregistered schools team.

The centre, its director Nacerine Talbi, 47, and headteacher Maryam Bernhardt, 38, appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court today, charged with operating an unregistered independent educational institution. They deny the charges.

The prosecution alleges that the school should have been registered because the education it provided met the government’s definition of “full-time”, in that it operated during the day for more than 18 hours a week.

Louis Mably, prosecuting, said: “The school purports to be providing part-time education. It purports to be supporting children who are being home educated. It holds itself out as being a setting that provides a maximum of 18 hours lesson time a week.

“The school operates from 9am to 2pm each day and therefore it operates across almost all of what might be considered a school day. The key point is that anyone attending this setting for a full period as a body of children are losing the ability to be educated during the day anywhere else, and what’s more the setting sets homework every night and expects it to be completed.”

The court heard how inspectors clashed with the centre’s leaders during their inspections on October 12 and November 14 last year after inspectors asked to see registers and pupil timetables. Bernhardt allegedly told inspectors repeatedly that the centre was not required to be registered because it educated pupils for less than 18 hours a week.

But Mably said this was contested.

“There is evidence that where children have indicated that they are being educated for 18 hours a week, when the timetables are looked at, it’s clear they are being taught for more than 18 hours, up to 20 hours in some cases,” he said.

The hearing continues.