Unregistered educational institutions are able to avoid scrutiny, writes Etan Smallman
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When is a school not a school? This peculiar question has become crucial to the welfare of thousands of children in Britain amid increasing concerns about unregistered educational institutions – which have been accused of everything from physical abuse to fostering extremism.
Until last week, at least, the legal definition seemed clear enough. An “independent school”, in England, “means any school at which full-time education is provided for five or more pupils of compulsory school age”, according to the Education Act 1996. “Full-time” means “any institution that is operating during the day, for more than 18 hours per week”. Run such an enterprise without registering, and you would be committing a criminal offence and risk imprisonment.
The Government has repeatedly promised a clampdown on those that do. In 2015, David Cameron even included a pledge in his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Ofsted has since identified more than 350 suspected illegal schools in England. At least a quarter of these are religious, half of them Islamic. Rogue schools have been accused of their teachers hitting pupils, advocating the murder of homosexuals, branding women who wear perfume as adulterers, and breaching fire safety orders. Yet there has never been a single prosecution, let alone a conviction.
To the astonishment of many, last week, the Government revealed publicly for the first time that it regards a large number of so-called “illegal schools” as neither illegal – nor even as schools.
The key loophole in the Education Act, it says, is the phrase “education suitable to the requirements of pupils of compulsory school age”. If a “school” teaches a religious curriculum so restricted as to not be “suitable”, it is off the hook, as it does not technically count as a school and therefore can’t be held to Ofsted requirements.
“The message, in other words, is that if you want to avoid the scrutiny and oversight of the Government, teach as narrow and doctrinaire a curriculum as possible,” says Jay Harman, of the pressure group Humanists UK, which campaigns against faith schools. “This is nonsensical.”
The Department for Education (DfE) has been remarkably tight-lipped about its stance until now. In 2016, while reporting on a “setting” that had been ordered to close after running unregistered for 40 years – according to Ofsted – I put a question to the DfE. Were lawyers for some unregistered religious “schools” arguing they did not meet the definition, and what was the Government’s view? The DfE refused to answer.
Even now, the official position is hardly clear. Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service makes no mention of a religious focus precluding an unregistered setting from being in breach of the law; neither does the DfE’s own guidance (despite a section on “schools with a religious ethos”).
The Children and Young People Scrutiny Commission of Hackney Council in east London published a report in January saying the law was “woefully inadequate” and that its members were “baffled by an apparent lack of desire on the part of the Government” to address the crisis.
Its chairman, Christopher Kennedy, who has accused the DfE of giving “disingenuous” quotes to the media, has said the council has been calling for new legislation for years, but was told by the Government “they have no plans to change the law”.
Another Hackney councillor, Abraham Jacobson, who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, finished secular education at age 14 and says one of his sons left his school early to study full-time at a yeshiva instead, having completed six GCSEs.
Jacobson, who also sat on the local commission that investigated unregistered settings, says: “At the end of the day, you do what’s best for the child. As far as I’m concerned, the law is an ass. It’s a one-size-fits-all policy, which does not understand the culture of the [Orthodox] Jewish community at all.”
He insists that parents of children taking purely religious lessons would be happy to abide by stricter safeguarding regulations if Ofsted vowed not to interfere in their curriculum. Ofsted has also repeatedly said it wants the law changed to give it more investigatory powers. The Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has said: “There are segments of particular faiths who are determined to use our schools to promote beliefs and practices that are an anathema to British values. The current legislative framework is not adequate.
“We need a better definition of a school so that institutions that should be inspected cannot evade scrutiny and also the powers to collect the kinds of evidence needed to take action.”
When asked by i whether it was proposing any action to close the gaping loopholes, the DfE declined to comment. It is more than two years since the Government’s consultation on “out-of-school education settings” concluded, but the DfE is still sitting on the results. Asked why, and if and when they would be disclosed, the DfE declined to answer beyond saying it would be “in due course”.
A spokesman for the DfE said: “No child should be placed at risk and where a school is operating illegally action must be taken. There are clear powers in place for authorities to intervene where children are being put at risk and we will continue to work with our partners to look at how we can tackle this issue most effectively.”
Sarah* is a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill, Hackney in northeast London, and is concerned that communal pressure will soon see her sons begin studying at unregistered yeshivas.
“My main concerns are safeguarding issues – unsafe buildings and teachers not being vetted – and zero non-religious education,” she tells i. “The schools are totally Yiddish-speaking, and the children are not even taught basic English.”
She is incredulous that the institutions are not regarded by the Government as schools. “I think it’s ridiculous. They are schools, which teach religious studies from very early in the morning until very late at night, six days a week.
“Children are being left to rot; mentally, physically, emotionally, academically. They are brainwashed daily on the dangers of the internet and engaging with anyone outside the community, they are not allowed to play sports, or visit a library.”
Sarah adds the claim that some parents pretend their children are home-schooled. “But I know that’s impossible, as the religious studies are all-consuming. There is no time to teach anything else.”
This, of course, is the other regulatory conundrum; the law on home schooling is just as lax. Councils have a responsibility to identify children not receiving a “suitable education”. However, there is no requirement for parents to notify authorities if they want to teach children at home, making it impossible for councils even to know how many youngsters they need to check up on.
This week, a police study revealed that half of 70 London extremists known to the Metropolitan Police had removed their children from state schools to teach them at home. The Met’s deputy assistant commissioner, Neil Basu, has previously said: “Unregulated and home schooling are a breeding ground for extremism and future terrorism.”
Humanists UK is calling for “a simple obligation on parents to register their children as home schooled” and a register of “out-of-school settings”, including “schools” providing full-time religious instruction.
Harman warns: “The longer the Government delays these reforms, the longer thousands of children will remain at risk of indoctrination and abuse.”
Sarah, who says she has complained to Ofsted, her council and her MP, adds: “It’s extremely upsetting that it’s taken decades for the authorities to finally admit there’s a problem, and only after being rammed in the face with evidence in the media. Everyone has turned a blind eye for decades.”
*Sarah’s name has been changed to protect her identity