Weaknesses in current legislation on home-schooling are being exploited by illegal schools, which may be putting children at “significant risk of harm and indoctrination”, Michael Wilshaw has said after warning of more than 100 schools suspected of operating outside the law.
The taskforce set up by Ofsted with extra resources from the Department for Education has already issued warning notices to suspected illegal schools in London, Birmingham, Luton, Wolverhampton and Staffordshire, which had about 350 pupils on their premises, and interviewed individuals under caution in relation to suspected offences.
Schools are required by law to register with the government and be subject to inspection and other accountability measures, but Ofsted has expressed fears that increasing numbers of pupils supposedly being home-educated by their parents are actually being sent to illegal, unregistered schools.
The taskforce, commissioned last December by education secretary Nicky Morgan, was set up in the wake of a pledge by David Cameron to clamp down on unregistered madrasas, Sunday schools and yeshivas, and after Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector, warned illegal schools often put children at ‘significant risk of harm’ and that existing closure powers were ‘inadequate’.
Wilshaw also called for a review of government policy in December after claiming confusing departmental advice had led to illegal schools in Birmingham staying open for several weeks after they were identified.
And in today’s letter, Wilshaw told Morgan he believed the problem was more widespread and affected more children than previously thought, blaming the current law that allows parents to take their children out of school, which he warned could be exploited.
“Evidence inspectors have gathered over recent weeks has also reaffirmed my belief that there is a clear link between the growth of unregistered schools and the steep rise in the number of children recorded as being home educated in England over the past few years,” Wilshaw said.
“I have previously voiced concern that many of those operating unregistered schools are unscrupulously using the freedoms that many parents have to home educate their children as cover for their activities. They are exploiting weaknesses in the current legislation to operate on the cusp of the law.”
Last December, a BBC investigation revealed that almost 37,000 pupils were recorded as home-educated in England, over 10,000 more than six years previously and equivalent to a rise of about 65 per cent.
And last summer, education select committee chair Neil Carmichael faced a fierce backlash when he told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference that he believed parents who home-schooled their children should have to register with their local authority.
Although much of the fears about illegal schools have focused on the risk of radicalisation of young people, the taskforce has also unearthed physical threats to children’s wellbeing in some settings.
In his letter to Morgan, Wilshaw said inspectors continued to be “deeply alarmed” by what they had found during some visits, including “serious fire hazards”, “unsafe and unhygienic premises” and staff and volunteers “who have not been properly checked or cleared to work with children”.
“What we have found so far is likely to represent only a small proportion of the illegal schools operating across the country. Inspectors are hearing about suspected new cases every week. I therefore remain extremely concerned about the number of children and young people attending these schools who may be at significant risk of harm and indoctrination.”
The chief inspector’s comments follow the launch of Faith Schoolers Anonymous, a new website for whistle-blowers in illegal schools developed by the British Humanist Association, which went live this morning.
A government consultation on inspection powers for out-of-school education settings closed in January, with a response from the Department for Education on how it intends to proceed expected in the coming months. It is believed they will seek new legal powers to tackle the problems.
A department spokesperson said councils had “clear powers” to take action where there are concerns regarding a child’s wellbeing, adding: “If anyone has concerns a crime is being committed they should contact the police.
“We have given new resources to Ofsted to investigate unregistered schools, and to prepare case files for prosecution by the CPS. We have consulted on new measures to protect children in out of schools settings offering intensive education. We received a large number of responses, which we are now considering, and will make a further announcement in due course.”