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.

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  1. Tom Burkard

    Somehow I wonder about the DfE’s enthusiasm for persecuting people who have the initiative to take control of their children’s education–thereby saving the taxpayer the expense. I homeschooled my son because his school’s whole language regime utterly failed him; quite likely, these parents aren’t too keen on our Early Years specialists’ enthusiasm for ‘learning through play’.

    • Tom, initially your comment on this article comes across and informed and intelligent….then takes an unexpected turn at the end; if you do your research and educate yourself, learning through play is an empirically evidenced tried and tested methodology in education the world over. Children learn through play and are their brains are not typically ready for formal education until the age of 6-7; one just has to do a simple google search to learn more on this. The Swedish and the Finnish don’t start learning to read or write for example until this age and they have superior educational outcomes than this country currently does. Hope this helps.

  2. I know nothing about this case other than what has been written here. However as a general comment, My take on this is that if children are being educated at an institution of learning, more or less full time, then it’s not home education regardless of what anyone says. Both in law and in a more common sense understanding, such a setting would be regarded as a school.

    The reason why schools should rightfully be registered and inspected is that children are spending significant periods of time away from their families. As we have become well aware over the last decade or so years, children left alone with those outside their families are put at a significantly greater risk, regardless of how trusted these people may be. It is therefore right and lawful that such institutions are inspected to ensure that the place of education are suitable places for children and that those who come into contact with the children are safe to do so.