Thousands of children taught in illegal schools

Ofsted has published new figures which reveal the scale of the problem of unregistered schools in England, uncovering more than 500 suspected illegal schools.

As many as 6,000 children are being educated in the unregistered settings, Ofsted has found in its inspections to date. These children are potentially at risk because there is no formal external oversight of safeguarding, health and safety or the quality of education provided.

An unregistered school is defined as a setting that is operating as an independent school, without registration. It is a criminal offence to operate an unregistered independent school in England.

The inspectorate shows that 23 per cent of the settings investigated are in London, with the rest spread fairly evenly across the country. Alternative provision is the most common type of setting, accounting for 28 per cent. Ofsted has also revealed that 26 per cent of the settings are general education providers, and 21 per cent are places of religious instruction.

In total, 71 settings have been issued with a warning notice by inspectors. The data shows that 15 of those settings have since closed, while 39 have changed the way they operate in order to comply with the law, and nine have registered as independent schools.

The watchdog also warned that councils were subsidising these unregistered alternatives to school, paying up to £27,000 a year for places.

Victor Shafiee, Ofsted’s Deputy Director in charge of the unregistered schools taskforce, said: "We continue to have serious concerns about unregistered schools. As today’s data shows, this is not simply an issue with faith settings, nor is it limited to certain areas of the country. Unregistered schools come in many shapes and sizes, and not all of them are run with malicious intent. But, all children deserve the best. These settings deny children a proper education and can leave them at risk of harm.

"The problem here is first and foremost about safeguarding. Many of these places are unsafe – with poor facilities and hygiene, badly trained or untrained staff, who may not have had any employment checks made on them, and little care for children’s health and well-being. We need to make sure children are safe and receiving a good education that prepares them for life in modern Britain. Ofsted will continue to do everything we can to investigate and inspect unregistered schools, and where necessary we will seek to prosecute those running them."

To be required to register as a school, a setting must be providing full-time education to at least five children of compulsory school age, or one child who is looked after by the local authority or has an education, health and care plan. The setting must operate from a building, and must offer a curriculum that includes maths and English.

There is currently no legal definition of ‘full-time education’. The Department for Education (DfE) has issued guidance to say that 18 hours or more a week is likely to constitute full-time education. However, some providers circumvent the requirement to register by operating for 17 hours and 50 minutes per week. By doing this, they are able operate on the cusp of the law and avoid scrutiny.