Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector of Schools, has written to Nicky Morgan on a number of occasions about illegal schools, most recently on May 16th 2016. Sometimes Sir Michael also mentions home education in this context. BBC article May 16th.
“Illegal schools” are schools which meet the criteria for registering as independent schools but the proprietors have opted NOT to register.
A registered school has to comply with various legal requirements around health and safety, a broad curriculum, and promoting British Values.
Schools only have to register if education is being provided to a particular child for 18 hours or more a week, hence much of the investigation hinges on the timetable for an individual child, and not on how many hours the school is open. This is significant because it makes it harder to determine when a school is a school in the eyes of the law.
Moreover, the law in England does not give the local council powers to inspect school registers or to question the proprietor on the school premises or to check individual pupils’ timetables if the school wishes not to co-operate. The only body which has powers to do this is Ofsted under section 97 powers. (See the Ofsted section 97 Inspection Handbook for more details)
Reference to “Ofsted inspections” of suspected illegal schools could refer to an investigation of how many hours a child is being taught, OR to pre-registration inspections where a school is – allegedly – in the process of registering even though it is already operating.
The Government only recently agreed to back Ofsted in closing down illegal schools at the end of December 2015 which is why Sir Michael refers to action taken this year.
It has not gone unnoticed that Sir Michael claims unregistered schools use home education as a “cover” and that therefore “arrangements” for home education should be “strengthened.”
It is difficult to work out exactly where he is going with this, but he MAY be saying that schools which are really full-time (and therefore subject to regulation) can pretend to be part-time and thereby evade regulation, and that one of the main ways schools can pretend to be part-time is for the proprietors to tell parents if anyone asks to say that their children are being home educated.
However, there are other ways to achieve the same objective, which is what the Government is already doing and which Sir Michael seems to have overlooked.
The Government is already taking steps to increase the tracking of children who come out of school and is also seeking to introduce light touch regulation of part-time out-of-school settings.
Sir Michael wrote to Nicky Morgan last July saying there was a significant issue with children disappearing from schools, including illegal unregistered schools.
In response to the July 2015 letter, the Department for Education put forward proposals to strengthen the Pupil Registration Regulations so there will be more robust tracking of pupils coming out of school.
The Government also plans to regulate part-time tuition centres (“out of school settings”) and here again Sir Michael has attracted widespread controversy by suggesting that Sunday Schools would be inspected.
As an aside, a quote supposedly about home education and radicalisation which appeared in the Independent on Sunday just before Christmas turned out to be about part-time tuition centres and NOT about home education.
This is what Sir Michael said in his Advice Note of May 16th
I have written to you on a number of previous occasions to alert you to my concerns about the safety of children who are being educated in unregistered schools. Following my most recent letter to you on 11 December 2015, I accepted your invitation to establish a new taskforce within Ofsted to investigate suspected illegal schools and pursue those individuals responsible for operating them.
I am grateful for the additional resources you have made available for this important work and for the support we continue to receive from your officials.
I agreed that I would keep you regularly informed of the progress we are making to identify, investigate and inspect these schools and to prepare cases for possible prosecution.
In January, I recruited a team of seven experienced inspectors to work exclusively on this critical area of child safety. Since then, these inspectors, working closely with Department for Education (DfE) officials, have identified more than 100 suspected unregistered schools across the country. Members of this taskforce are now carrying out visits to these settings, using my powers under section 97 of the Education and Skills Act 2008 to conduct inspections.
The evidence that they have gathered so far during this short period firmly reinforces my belief that there are many more children hidden away from the view of the authorities in unregistered schools across the country than previously thought.
Last month, inspectors issued seven warning notices to suspected illegal schools operating in London, Birmingham, Luton, Wolverhampton and Staffordshire. They have also interviewed a number of individuals under caution in relation to suspected offences. In total, around 350 children or young people were found to be on the premises during these visits.
Inspectors continue to be deeply alarmed by what they are finding during some of their visits, including:
serious fire hazards, including obstructed exits and inaccessible fire escapes
unsafe and unhygienic premises, including in one case, chemicals and chemistry equipment in an unlocked food cupboard in a room where children ate their lunch
staff and volunteers who have not been properly checked or cleared to work with children.
What we have found so far is likely to represent only a small proportion of the illegal schools operating across the country. Inspectors are hearing about suspected new cases every week. I therefore remain extremely concerned about the number of children and young people attending these schools who may be at significant risk of harm and indoctrination.
Evidence inspectors have gathered over recent weeks has also reaffirmed my belief that there is a clear link between the growth of unregistered schools and the steep rise in the number of children recorded as being home educated in England over the past few years.
I have previously voiced concern that many of those operating unregistered schools are unscrupulously using the freedoms that parents have to home educate their children as a cover for their activities. They are exploiting weaknesses in the current legislation to operate on the cusp of the law. Many are charging parents thousands of pounds to send their children to these unregistered schools.
In doing so, many are providing a sub-standard education, placing children at risk and undermining the government’s efforts to ensure that all schools are promoting British values, including tolerance and respect for others.
I know we both share a determination to take swift and decisive action against those who are operating illegal schools and thereby putting children at risk of harm, including the risk of exposure to extremism and radicalisation.
It is also very important that local authorities, who have overall responsibility for the safety of all children in their area, are playing their part. They need to show vigilance and share their local intelligence with other agencies, including Ofsted, to ensure these establishments are identified and investigated as quickly as possible.
Ofsted will support the DfE and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in taking forward prosecutions, by pursuing investigations into illegally operating schools vigorously and preparing strong cases against the individuals involved.
To enable local authorities to fulfil their statutory function, I have asked inspectors to write to the relevant council immediately following any inspection of an unsafe and unsuitable setting. Whenever necessary, they will also provide a list of the children found to be attending the setting. This will help local authorities perform their duty under section 437(1) Education Act 1996 to serve notices on parents whose children may not be receiving a suitable education.
I welcome the new legislation that the government intends to bring forward on unregistered and supplementary schools. I would also welcome the opportunity for my officials to work with yours on the current legal framework around home education to consider how the arrangements should be strengthened.
Thank you for your continuing support.
Sir Michael was also interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme May 16th 2016. The interviewer was not able to pin Sir Michael down as to whether he believed the existing law on private schools was sufficient. Sir Michael also made several extremely odd and patently incorrect statements about the law relating to home education, such as saying parents have to register with the local authority so that the local authority AND OFSTED can look at what they are doing.
LISTEN AGAIN (first 15 minutes)
Here is a rough transcript.
Eddie Mair: In PM tonight, the children who being taught ILLEGALLY. [Sir Michael Wilshaw: we’ve found extremist literature, we’ve found unsafe conditions, so we are worried about the rapid GROWTH of these illegal schools and what it means for our society]
EM: England’s Chief Schools Inspector will be live on PM…
Chris Aldridge news announcer: the education watchdog Ofsted has said many more children than previously thought are attending suspected illegal schools in England, most of them religious. The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said the youngsters risked being exposed to extremism and radicalisation. Richard Galpin reports.
Richard Galpin: Ofsted began a crackdown at the beginning of this year, and in its first progress report to the Government, it says its special team of inspectors has already uncovered more than a hundred suspected illegal schools across England. Warning notices have been issued in London Birmingham Luton Wolverhampton and Stoke on Trent. All schools providing more than 20 hours or more of teaching a week must register with the Department for Education otherwise they could face fines or prosecution. The BBC understand that most of the unregistered schools found so far are of a religious nature with the majority being Islamic or Jewish…
Eddie Mair: it’s 5 past 5, there are an unknown number of children being taught in England in schools that are not registered, according to school inspectors. More than one hundred suspected illegal schools have been found this YEAR. In the past month 7 warning notices have been issued in London, Luton Birmingham Wolverhampton and Stoke on Trent. Around 350 children or young people are thought to have been attending those premises. The Chief Inspector of Schools in England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is live on PM, you’re very welcome, we did ask for an interview from the Department for Education but the answer was no. Tell us about your inspections.
Sir Michael Wilshaw: well, I’ve written two advice notes to Nicky Morgan Secretary of State for Education in the last few months to say how worried I am about the growth of illegal schools and as a result of those two notes the Department for Education has given me the necessary funds to appoint a number of Senior Her Majesty’s Inspectors to investigate this issue. And what they found since January as you said is they’ve discovered a hundred of these illegal schools operating across the country, in the last month alone we’ve identified 7, educating if that’s the right word to use over 400 nearly 400 children, this is a real worry and I said in my latest note to the Secretary of State that I think the rules around home education need to be tightened because it’s quite clear to me there’s a correlation between the growth of HOME education and the number of illegal schools that are now operating and I’m sure the Government is giving this serious attention…
EM: in the experience of your inspectors what are these illegal – or apparently illegal – schools like?
SMW: they are pretty bad. In one of the advice notes I said – before January – I said that there were children operating in filthy unhygienic conditions, drains running through some of the premises…
EM: what sort of premises are they?
SMW: these are old factory buildings, warehouses, anywhere that these organisations want to set up, often charging parents for the privilege, and these children are not being educated well, the curriculum is being narrowed, often only religion being taught, homophobic literature being found, and of course, young people here are at risk and at risk of radicalisation
EM: what sort of danger are these children in?
SMW: very serious danger and we’ve highlighted not only health and safety risks but if the people in these institutions are not carefully vetted (and they’re not) then of course the wrong sort of people could be looking after these youngsters and educating them, AND they could be associating with people who have extremist views.
EM: I appreciate that your belief is that they’re illegal and certainly not registered, where is the evidence that the education is poor?
SMW: Because of what we SEE. The parents have a right to ensure that their children are well-educated, that they are taught well by people who have the necessary accreditation and safeguarding checks, they’ve got a right to expect a broad curriculum should be offered, they’ve got a right to expect that children will achieve good outcomes, and that they make good progress. Well none of those things are happening in some of these institutions that we visit and inspect
EM: why would a parent put their child in an establishment like that, why would a parent PAY to put their child in an establishment like that?
SMW: well that’s the question we ask, they shouldn’t be doing this, there’s nothing wrong with a parent wanting a child to be home educated and that’s something that’s been enshrined in statute for a very long time and if parents want to do that then they’ve got to inform the local authority that they are doing it and the local authority visits to check that a reasonable education is being offered and that’s fine, that’s gone on for years, what’s happening now is a growth of home education, people who want to circumvent subvert the law really or abuse the law and set out with other parents or other families, these schools, out of public schools, not registered with the Department for Education and not regulated by Ofsted and the local authority not being informed
EM: but is the answer to my question, I was interested what the PARENT’S motivation might be, if you’re finding schools that are terrible, why would a parent want to put their child in those?
SMW: because those parents do not want mainstream education
SMW: because they’re not satisfied with it, because they believe that music for example would be taught or that creative subjects would be taught, which they disapprove of, so they are…
EM: this is religion?
SMW: yeah so they are opting out of the system
EM: in every case?
SMW: I SUSPECT in every case. And some religious leaders would be ENCOURAGING and that’s certainly something our inspectors have found, some religious leaders are encouraging their parents to do this, now that’s DANGEROUS for the children that go to these institutions
EM: which leaders are doing that?
SMW: well some leaders in the Muslim community are doing it and some leaders in the Jewish community are doing it
EM: what can the authorities do about this?
SMW: well we’re encouraging the Government to look at the laws around home education and to tighten them up
EM: sorry just to be clear, are you suggesting that these establishments might be operating within the law???
SMW: well they’re NOT operating within the law because it’s absolutely essential and it is a REQUIREMENT on parents if they are going to home educate their children to inform somebody that that’s happening, THESE children are going to places that no-one knows about, the local authority doesn’t know that these places exist, so…we’re worried about that, and if parents want to take their children away from school and educate them at home, they are duty bound to inform the local authority that that is happening, where the location is, so that Ofsted can look at it and the local authority can look at it
EM: what I’m driving at is…does the law as currently constituted provide you and others with the powers to shut these places down and get the children into properly authorised schools?
SMW: well if we find illegal schools operating where no-one knows where these children are and what’s happening with them, then we have the powers to investigate them, and if necessary prosecute them
EM: one final thought at the risk of drawing you into politics, Labour says the Government’s education policy has led to a FRAGMENTED school system, lacking robust local oversight, to spot these problems, what do you think?
SMW: well I think there HAS to be oversight, there has to be local oversight of what is happening in our school system, whether it’s done by the local…
EM: is it lacking?
SMW: the local authority or the newly appointed regional schools commissioners
EM: and is it lacking now?
SMW: and if it isn’t happening, we’ll see the growth of these institutions, it’s REALLY important that local authorities – and I have to emphasise this – local authorities are still charged with the responsibility of safeguarding ALL children whether they go to a local authority school or an academy or a free school. And if these places are proliferating in local authority areas, it is THEIR responsibility to make sure that that doesn’t happen
EM: what do you think just finally accounts for the shortfall, there’s clearly a gap?
SMW: well local authorities need the resources to do it and if they haven’t got the resources…
EM you think they haven’t got the resources?
SMW: and if they haven’t got the resources, human resources to investigate what’s happening, to have the intelligence on the ground about what’s happening, then that’s a serious worry
EM: Sir Michael thank you very much