‘Open sewers and rat traps in rooms’: The ‘appalling’ conditions at England’s illegal schools

England’s network of illegal schools is “not just a faith school problem”, an Ofsted director has said, after new data revealed thousands of pupils could be languishing in “appalling” alternative provision, sometimes at the taxpayer’s expense.

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

I’ve seen holes in walls and floors. You name it. I’ve seen locked fire doors

In one case, a local council was paying an AP school £27,000 per pupil per year for provision which involved children sitting around and “playing computer games”.

Today, Ofsted has published for the first time a full breakdown of the types of schools investigated, inspected and issued warning notices by its illegal schools taskforce.

The new data shows that of 521 settings investigated since the team was set up three years ago, 28 per cent are alternative provision, 26 per cent provide “general education” and 21 per cent provide religious instruction.

The statistics also show unregistered settings are also more likely to be identified in London and the West Midlands. Settings in the two regions account for 40 per cent of the total.


It’s not just about faith

Much of the narrative around illegal schools operating in England has focused on faith settings, in particular Muslim madrasas and Jewish yeshivas. But religious schools make up less than a quarter of those investigated, and just over a third of those inspected.

Of 66 religious schools inspected so far, 36 were Muslim, 18 were Jewish and 12 were Christian.

Victor Shafiee, Ofsted’s deputy director for unregistered schools and head of the six-person taskforce, warned against an “undue focus” on faith.

“I think if we focus unduly on the faith [settings], we do the children that go to the other ones an injustice really.”

Of those other settings, dozens are in the form of unregistered alternative provision, which caters largely for children who have left the mainstream school system because of behaviour issues. But instead of providing an education, some settings leave the children to “languish”.

“They just sit playing computer games and just waste their lives in a way that’s really unacceptable, and in some cases public money is paying for that,” said Shafiee.

“We’ve come across people who have been banned from teaching in these places. We’ve come across people that have no qualifications teaching in these places. As I said, the least capable are looking after the most vulnerable in these organisations.”


Ofsted awaits stronger powers

Launched in 2016, Ofsted’s illegal schools taskforce has so far received £3 million in government funding. It has identified 521 potentially illegal settings, inspected 259 and issued warnings to 71, of which 15 have closed and 39 are now compliant with the law.

However, so far, just one setting has been successfully prosecuted for operating illegally.

Last October, headteacher Beatrix Bernhardt, 38, director Nacerdine Talbi, 47, and the Al-Istiqamah Learning Centre Limited were convicted of running an illegal school, the Al-Istiqamah Learning Centre in Southall, west London, following a landmark trial at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

Although Ofsted says two further prosecutions are now in the pipeline, they put their lack of progress in this area down to their inspectors’ lack of powers to search premises and seize evidence.

The DfE has committed to boosting their powers, but no date has been fixed for new legislation, and for the moment, inspectors are operating with very little legal weight to back them up.

“I’m walking into an institution that’s possibly operating illegally. It is unlikely that they are going to hand over everything I need to be able to prove that that’s a school,” said Sue Will, a senior inspector with the team.

“What we don’t have is any powers to search and seize. So under this part of the legislation, really I am reliant on people handing that over to me.”

DfE guidance on unregistered settings is also, in Ofsted’s view, unhelpful. It states settings that provide education for at least 18 hours a week are “generally” considered to be operating full-time, but has been taken by some to be a hard-and-fast rule.

But this has simply emboldened proprietors of such settings to provide education right up to that limit, allowing them to avoid scrutiny.

For example, the guidance was key to Talbi and Bernhardt’s defence at last year’s trial, though their argument proved unsuccessful.

“If we look at those settings which are all what we call operating on the cusp, so those that are…doing 17 hours and 50 minutes,” said Will.

“It’s a bit like if you put the speed limit to 30 miles an hour, everybody’s probably coming in just under 30 miles an hour, you work up to that. So that’s exactly what those people are doing.”

To remedy this, Ofsted wants a definition of full-time education and what constitutes a school enshrined in law, but the government is yet to confirm its plans to legislate in this area.


Parents and councils ‘misled’

Shafiee warned that children in many unregistered settings are being “robbed of their life chances” because parents are “misled” into thinking they are proper schools, or councils “unwittingly” contract them to educate pupils in their care.

“They won’t be able to sit around tables like this, earning the salaries that we do, because they don’t get a good education and that’s unfair,” he said.

“People hang on to the bottoms of lorries and jump trains to get to this country because education is free. So why would you then send your child to an unregistered school and pay for them to go to these settings? It’s something that I find unfathomable.”

But it is not just the quality of education that worries inspectors. Will described “quite appalling” health and safety issues at schools she’s visited.

“We’re not just talking about run-down places that could do with a lick of paint,” she said. “We’re talking about some not very nice places at all.

“Open sewers, rat-traps in rooms, I’ve seen portakabins balanced on portakabins, exposed electrical work. I’ve seen holes in walls and floors. You name it. I’ve seen locked fire doors.”


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  1. Mark Watson

    Sorry, not only is this just wrong, but repeating erroneous statements as fact is dangerous, perpetuates and legitimises misunderstandings, and is something I would expect from gossip-mongers on Twitter not a reputable education publication that should know (or find out) the facts.

    DfE guidance does NOT state that “only schools providing more than 18 hours a week of a child’s education have to be registered as a school”. It just doesn’t. Have you actually read it?

    The guidance sets out the law which states that independent schools have to be registered, with an independent school being defined as any school at which full time education is provided for the relevant number of people.

    It then states really clearly, “There is no legal definition of ‘full time’. However, we would consider an institution to be providing full-time education if it is intended to provide, or does provide, all, or substantially all, of a child’s education.”

    Where the lazy oft-used reference to 18 hours comes from is because the guidance does include the sentence “Generally, we consider any institution that is operating during the day, for more than 18 hours per week, to be providing full-time education.”

    But this is NOT a requirement for constituting full-time education. Ofsted has investigated and threatened prosecution against organisations where children are receiving less than 18 hours education because it believed this constituted “full time education” for the children.

    So as a simple theoretical example, take ten children who are not on roll at a school and who get 5 hours per week of what DfE would count as “education” at home. These ten children then go along to an institution that provides them twelve hours of “education” (say in Maths, English and Science) per week. This institution therefore could be said to be providing substantially all of these children’s education. It would therefore be an independent school and would need to be registered.

    If an Ofsted inspector, this Sue Will, really doesn’t understand this then it’s worrying. But it is the job of Schools Week to point this out, not repeat and perpetuate her mistakes.

    • Anne Brown

      Beautifully put, and a necessary correction.

      I’m almost amused by the claim that LA’s are unwittingly paying substantial sums (The Guardian quote £27000 per pupil) for unregistered provision. Wouldn’t you expect them to make such basic checks before handing over that amount of cash given the lengths they go to to avoid paying for kids with SEND and their attitudes towards home educators? I do hope someone’s going to call for increased regulation and oversight of LA’s so they can’t do that any more.

    • You’re right that there’s confusion over what is a ‘school’ offering ‘full-time education’. The DfE offers only guidance as you say and Ofsted has pointed out:
      “There is currently no legal definition of ‘full-time education’. The Department for Education (DfE) has issued guidance to say that 18 hours or more a week is likely to constitute full-time education. However, some providers circumvent the requirement to register by operating for 17 hours and 50 minutes per week. By doing this, they are able [to] operate on the cusp of the law and avoid scrutiny.”
      The guidance needs to be given legal status.

      • Mark Watson

        A good link, as it seems to show Ofsted (or at least some people within Ofsted) really don’t understand the framework they’re operating in.

        Ofsted should be shouting loudly and clearly that providing less than 18 hours of education per week is absolutely and categorically not a cast-iron defence against a criminal prosecution for failing to register as an independent school. (Not least because that’s the actual law).

        It’s statements like the one you’ve linked to, and quotes from Sue Will above, that encourage people to set up businesses that provide 17 .9 hours of education a week. It is just as likely to be ‘honest’ people thinking this keeps them in the clear as it is to be ‘dodgy’ people looking to profit unfairly.

        The law is, I would suggest, intentionally drafted so that there is no clear definition for what ‘full-time education’ means. If Ofsted are really arguing for a clear and precise legal definition then they would seem to be shooting themselves in the foot. If there was such a definition then it would mean that people will absolutely take advantage by operating just below the threshold and you lose all subjectivity and ability to recognise different circumstances.

        • Ah, I see what you’re driving at. Not having a legal definition allows flexibility and would avoid the ‘dog poo bag’ situation where people obey the law (pick up dog poo) but not the spirit (hang dog poo bag on a tree). As you say, a hard-and-fast definition of what constitutes full time education would allow providers of an unregistered school to claim they were operating within the law by offering education below the legal time expectation.

      • Mark Watson

        Sorry to harp on, but I’ve just re-read the quote you’ve pulled out and it makes me want to scream with frustration at Ofsted.

        “However, some providers circumvent the requirement to register by operating for 17 hours and 50 minutes per week. By doing this, they are able [to] operate on the cusp of the law and avoid scrutiny.”

        In case it’s not abundantly clear from my rantings above, operating for 17 hours and 50 minutes per week:

        a) absolutely does NOT circumvent the requirement to register; and

        b) absolutely does NOT mean you avoid scrutiny.

        Ofsted have been given millions of pounds to challenge the problem of unregistered schools over the last year or two. It’s surely not too much to expect them to understand what the rules are is it?

        And if they don’t, then it’s the job of publications like Schools Week to point it out to them.

        • We seem to be partly in agreement – our comments crossed.

          However, I think Ofsted does understand the guidance (hence the plea for it to be legalised which you have persuaded me is not such a good idea) and that you’re rather hard on Schools Week which was only reporting what Ofsted had said. You’re rather shooting the messenger.

          • Mark Watson

            I may well be shooting the messenger, but if you’ll indulge me Schools Week shouldn’t be just a messenger. If a publication bills itself as being “in-depth, investigative education journalism” then it shouldn’t just report what Ofsted says, it should investigate it and if appropriate challenge it.

            Only when the media makes clear that this “18 hour threshold” is no such thing will this situation improve. I’m taking Schools Week to task here because this is their article and their website. It’s not just them though – the BBC have a story on this same point today and again they haven’t challenged Ofsted’s comments.

            But thank you for the “dog poo bag” analogy which I’m sure I’ll use in the future!!