Illegal schools: Government accused of ‘unacceptable’ delays to crackdown

The DfE is offering schools and trusts improvement support to deal with Covid problems

The government has been accused of “unacceptable” delays to its crackdown on illegal schools, as new figures show tip-offs to Ofsted now average 12 a month.

The inspectorate wants ministers to act “swiftly” on promised reforms, while safeguarding chiefs and campaigners say agencies will still have inadequate powers to inspect and close sites.

A Schools Week analysis of Ofsted data shows it has investigated 123 sites over the past year, with more referrals between August and March than in the previous six months. The rise follow fears of a Covid-fuelled boom in home education encouraging the growth of illegal schools.

Even officials in Hackney, which has used planning rules and other “lawfully audacious” tactics to tackle sites, admit their clampdown is not working. Two sites were found in the east London borough in April alone.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was committed to ensuring anyone running an unregistered school faced “the full force of the law”.

Just four prosecutions from 857 tip-offs

But there have been only four prosecutions. Eleven warning notices were issued over the past year, and 106 since Ofsted’s dedicated taskforce was launched in 2016, although there have been 857 reports.

While some may reference known sites or be inaccurate, agencies say their hands are tied by legal loopholes and limited powers.

Proposals to stop allowing sites to avoid registration were promised three years ago, but a consultation only closed in November.

And it is two years since a consultation closed on a register of children missing from education.

The DfE declined to say when either reform would be confirmed, promising action “in due course”.

An Ofsted spokesperson said it understood the government was committed to reform, but hoped it would happen “swiftly”.

Agencies lack powers to deal with illegal schools

Jim Gamble, an independent child safeguarding commissioner for the City of London and Hackney, said the delays were “unacceptable”, warning that local agencies lacked the powers to visit and to check on the safety of premises and staff recruitment and vetting. They also could not shut unsafe sites.

Illegal schools
Sir Alan Wood

Sir Alan Wood, who has led multiple government safeguarding reviews, said a rise in home education during Covid may have encouraged unregistered providers to “try and expand their activity”.

He said councils and other safeguarding bodies should be given the responsibility and power to check on unregistered settings.

Ofsted also lacks the powers to seize evidence or close schools after successful prosecutions – something that Dr Ruth Wareham, the education campaigns manager at Humanists UK, said it needed “as a matter of urgency”.

Faith school concerns go uninvestigated

In 2016 her organisation told the Charity Commission of its concerns about scripture-based education at unregistered sites in Hackney’s Orthodox Charedi Jewish community.

Humanists UK claimed at the time the education left pupils with limited English and “ignorant and unprepared” for the outside world.

The commission said it had “carefully assessed” concerns, but not investigated the sites. A spokesperson said it was “not responsible for regulating schools”, suggesting the DfE or Ofsted would need to find breaches of education law before potential charity governance issues could be investigated.

The DfE did not respond when asked about the sites. It is understood Ofsted was also unable to act in most cases because sites providing a narrow curriculum are not deemed schools, a loophole delayed reforms are intended to fix.

Gamble said Hackney safeguarding chiefs’ own repeated efforts to engage charities running unregistered sites had failed, despite their legal duty to co-operate.

Officials have resorted to “lawfully audacious tactics” targeting some Hackney settings, using fire, safety or planning regulations. But he called it “untenable” as groups often moved.

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