Ministers will be handed new powers to suspend education at unsafe independent schools as part of a long-promised crackdown on illegal settings.
The Department for Education has admitted current regulations mean some providers can work “on the cusp of the law”, and efforts to close failing independent schools are “slow”.
Today it moved a step closer to new legislation that will close loopholes allowing some schools to operate without registering, and therefore avoid regulation and formal inspection.
Ofsted has previously said it found safeguarding issues in around a third of suspected unregistered settings its inspectors have visited in recent years.
The government first opened a consultation on forcing more settings to register in early 2020. Its response, published today, said it will now act “when a suitable legislative opportunity arises” after reporting “broad support” from those consulted.
Currently settings that offer a narrow curriculum, or operate during school hours but state they teach for less than 18 hours a week, can avoid registration.
The 18-hour threshold for registration is also only guidance, with only full-time settings legally obliged to register – and “full-time” undefined.
Reforms will widen the net to include all settings educating school-age children, which are open for 18 hours a week at least partly in school hours, regardless of their curriculum.
The DfE acknowledged that some religious groups, particularly those of Charedi Jewish faith, would be disproportionately affected.
But consultees echoed longstanding concerns about some children receiving only a “narrow religious education”. The DfE said it was “not acceptable” to have children’s education and welfare going unscrutinised.
The DfE will also go further than previously announced, however. It will not only widen the registration net, but also seek new powers to suspend any registered independent school “where there are serious safeguarding failures” that put children at risk.
One school took seven years to close down after failures were first revealed. A 2017 Schools Week investigation found almost 200 small independent schools were still open despite repeatedly failing to reach Ofsted standards.
DfE said the new power would “enable rapid action”, with the threat of unlimited fines and six-month jail terms for breaching suspension – as well as giving settings a chance to address failings instead of being shut down.
Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman said the changes will “make it easier” for the watchdog to prevent “unsuitable and unsafe illegal schools” from operating.
“I look forward to seeing more detail of how our powers to investigate illegal schools will be strengthened, and hope to see this legislation put forward in the Queen’s Speech next week.”
The government currently has some powers to shut unregistered settings. But some providers have simply flouted closure orders.
Only two cases have ever seen prison sentences imposed, and in one of them a south London illegal school kept operating anyway – despite three Ofsted visits.