Ofsted, the organisation in England and Wales which regulates schools, has raised serious concerns about the number of unregistered schools. In the past three years, Ofsted has uncovered more than 500 illegal schools. But what exactly makes a school illegal, and why as parents should we be worried?
What is an Unregistered School?
There’s a fairly tight legal definition in British law of a “school”. An illegal school is one which sits outside local authority control. In this way it is similar to an independent or fee-paying school, but with one key difference. Reputable private or independent schools register with Ofsted and other bodies and go through testing and monitoring. Illegal schools choose not to do this. A school is usually defined as somewhere giving education to 5 children or more, for at least 18 hours a week. Many of the illegal schools in the UK are run by a particular religious group and concentrate on the teachings of the religion.
There is no way of checking that this type of school is delivering education to a required standard. It’s important to remember that the legislation just refers to schools delivering main education, not to holiday clubs, after-school clubs or religious schools which children attend at weekends.
Several illegal schools have been shut down in recent years. In one school, Ofsted inspectors found that all children did all day was repeat religious texts. In another, children played computer games all day. There are an estimated 6,000 children in UK unregistered schools. A growing issue is with children who are excluded from mainstream education and who end up in these “schools”, learning nothing.
Safety and Staff Vetting
Apart from issues with the curriculum, Ofsted raised two other main issues with illegal schools. Firstly, an illegal school isn’t held to the same health and safety standards as other schools. Ofsted found schools infested with rats and with dangerous electric wiring. Basic requirements such as a set number of toilets per children are not met. Secondly, illegal schools do not check staff in the same way as other schools must.
Most parents in the UK are aware that teachers have to be checked out before starting work. This process used to involved applying for a CRB check. Although the system is now run by the Disclosure and Barring Service, the ethos is the same. Teachers are thoroughly checked to make sure there is nothing in their past which might mean they are a danger to children. If teachers and other staff in schools aren’t being checked, this could put children at serious risk.
Proposed Register for Children Not in School
The Department for Education has proposed tackling this issue by setting up a register of children who are not in school. This would cover all children who are not in state schools or private schools. This move has been strongly opposed by people who choose to educate their children at home, outside the formal education system. At present, the register is just a proposal. There is a long way to go before it ever passes into law.