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We need to crack down on illegal schools

Unregistered providers are endangering children and harming social cohesion

With yesterday’s Queen’s Speech making reference to a grand total of 38 bills, the proposed Schools Bill — especially its intention to boost Ofsted’s powers to crack down on illegal unregistered schools — has generated much debate.

Unregistered establishments were ‘intentionally’ operating outside of regulations

While the data — to put it kindly — is patchy when it comes to understanding the problem of illegal schooling and unregistered provision in England, figures published by Ofsted back in April 2019 provided much cause for concern. Ofsted estimated that in the region of 6,000 children were being educated across the unregistered settings it had inspected. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) were based in London. Alternative provision — which is arranged when a young person cannot access mainstream schooling for reasons such as school exclusion, behavioural issues or illness — was the most common type of setting (28 per cent). More than a quarter (26 per cent) of the settings were “general education providers”, with over a fifth (21 per cent) being places of religious instruction. This last type of illegal unregistered setting included 36 Islamic, 18 Jewish and 12 Christian schools.

Last year, the regulator for schools warned that unregistered establishments were “intentionally” operating outside of regulatory structures which are designed to protect children’s welfare, safety and educational standards. Highlighting the extent of the problem in closed and segregated settings, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman recently said illegal unregistered schools were often run by people from “very separate communities” — including along religious lines — who viewed the separation from mainstream schooling as “extremely important”. Stressing the risk of failed social-integration outcomes, Spielman warned that many children in such establishments were “often growing up simply ignorant of so much that we expect all people to know to be able to fit into British society as adults”.

The Ofsted chief inspector also referred to the desperately low quality of the buildings of many unregistered settings investigated — including cases of broken windows, trailing electrical flexes and broken wires. There is also the risk of “home-schooling expansion” being used to provide a cover for unregistered providers to step up and expand their activity — with Spielman mentioning that four out of the five schools that have been prosecuted so far for operating on an illegal basis, included children who were claimed to be being educated at home by their parents. Providing a picture of how grand a scale the overall problem potentially is (along with revealing the absence of high-quality, state-run, data-collection systems), the chief inspector suggested that “tens of thousands” of England’s children are likely to attend unregistered schools.

Far too many children are ‘educated’ at the margins of society

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has led the charge when it comes to both shedding light on the social risks associated with illegal unregistered settings and exposing the fundamental lack of relevant official data which is available. The CSJ has been working as part of the IntegratED partnership, and its recent annual report flagged the disturbing reality that the UK government does not currently “keep records on the total number of unregistered providers, one-on-one tutors or work-based placements commissioned for children in AP [Alternative Provision]”. The second most common AP destination was unregistered provision, which in January 2021 accounted for a total of 3,128 pupils — marking a 17 per cent increase in the number of pupils in unregistered provision over a period of just one year. As it stands, there is not a comprehensive list of all unregistered settings based in England.

It is an unacceptable state of affairs that as a society, we have little to no idea of where so many British children are being schooled and whether they are at an illegal school, unregistered provider or electively home-educated. The depressing reality is that far too many of England’s children are “educated” at the very margins of our society — hidden from oversight and by no means being guaranteed of a wholesome education that helps them prepare for adult life in one of the most internally competitive and hyper-diverse nations on Earth.

In many cases, the conditions in which they are being schooled are anything but safe and secure — but rather, unsafe and squalid conditions that have the potential to undermine both their mental well-being and physical security. In the more extreme cases, there is the possibility that by operating outside of mainstream regulatory systems, places of religious instruction on the fringes of society are teaching values that are anything but beneficial from a social-cohesion perspective.

The announcement in the Queen’s Speech that the government intends to provide Ofsted with greater powers to investigate and crack down on illegal unregistered settings is — on the whole — a welcome one. But if we are to crack down on extremely dodgy forms of educational practice, there must be a robust systematic approach to identifying illegal unregistered settings and collecting vital data which helps us to better understand the key social, economic and cultural dynamics underpinning the very problem at hand.

The UK government — especially Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi — is on the right track when it comes to tackling illegal unregistered schools. A great deal of time, energy and resources must be invested to ensure that more of England’s children are receiving a high-quality education — one that prioritises their well-being and aids their personal development.

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