More than 100 suspected illegal religious schools investigated by Ofsted since 2016

17 January, 2020

The school inspectorate Ofsted has investigated more than 100 suspected illegal faith schools since establishing its Unregistered Schools Team in 2016, according to new figures published this week.

Humanists UK – which has led the campaign against illegal, unregistered schools for many years and was responsible for much of the work that prompted the creation of the dedicated Ofsted team – has called for stronger legislation to close schools that are operating illegally.

Ofsted investigated 107 ‘places of religious instruction’, as well as a number of unregistered settings that purport to provide ‘general education’ but have a religious ethos. Between January 2016 and August 2019, the team carried out inspections at 293 settings that their investigations led them to believe were operating illegally. Of these, 39 were known to be Muslim, 14 Christian, and 19 Jewish. However, it is unclear exactly how many more there were because, in many cases, inspectors were unable to establish whether the ‘school’ is religious or not. Ofsted has not yet published the results of the inspections broken down by type of school.

The education provided in many unregistered religious schools is often narrow in scope, deeply religiously conservative, intolerant, and extreme in outlook. Inappropriate teaching materials, including ‘books by people banned from entering the country,’ and ‘books advocating men beating their wives as punishment’ have been found on school sites.

Reports also suggest that children attending these ‘schools’ are often taught by unqualified, unvetted teachers, and subject to inadequate safeguarding, and serious health and safety problems, including rat traps in classrooms, holes in walls, and exposed electrics.

Loopholes in the law mean that providers of unregistered schools can continue to operate by claiming they are not schools and that they only provide supplementary education for home educated pupils or are purely places of religious instruction. Ofsted’s powers to investigate these settings are limited, for example, it is unable to seize evidence such as attendance registers, or be granted full access to premises.

At the beginning of last year, the Government announced it would legislate to strengthen Ofsted’s powers and amend the requirements for registration of independent educational institutions to ensure that settings providing all or most of a child’s education are registered as schools and able to be inspected and regulated accordingly. However, no obvious progress has been made since then. To date, only two investigations of unregistered settings with a religious character have resulted in prosecution.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham said: ‘Illegal schools pose a serious risk both to the pupils that attend them and to wider society. We know that many of the children who attend these settings are taught in filthy, unsafe conditions by unqualified teachers, and some pupils have been subject to serious abuse.

‘When these schools have a religious character, pupils are generally taught in accordance with a narrow faith-based curriculum that does not prepare them for life in a modern democratic society, and they are often exposed to extreme sexist and homophobic literature.

‘The Government has already delayed for far too long on this issue. It must act immediately to close the legal loopholes that allow unregistered schools to operate and give Ofsted the powers they need to close these settings down for good.’


For further comment or information or requests for interviews, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham at or phone 020 7324 3000.

Read our most recent article on the illegal school provider who vows she will continue to teach regardless of prosecution.

Read our most recent article on proposals to introduce a register of home educated children to prevent illegal schools

Read our article on Government proposals to legislate on illegal schools

Read more about our work on illegal faith schools here:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.