Government must move fast in crackdown on illegal schools, says Humanists UK

14 February, 2020

Illegal schools are often unsafe environments where children experience physical abuse, no secular education, and rote scripture learning from dawn to dusk

Humanists UK has today welcomed the Department for Education’s announcement that it will launch a new consultation to act on unregistered schools, but urged the Government to immediately bring forward legislation to give Ofsted the legal powers it needs to shut down any schools operating illegally.

The DfE says it will pour £400,000 into investigating unregistered independent schools and support the regulator to bring evidence for prosecution. It will consult on the definition of full-time education and publish a voluntary code of practice for out of school settings. It also reiterated its commitment to giving Ofsted stronger legal powers which it promised to do last year.

Humanists UK, which has led the national campaign for action on unregistered religious schools, has repeatedly called for more powers for Ofsted to ensure it can seize evidence and shut down settings operating outside the law. Its work exposing the plight of children in illegal schools led to the creation of Ofsted’s unregistered schools team. A 2019 Ofsted report found 6,000 children were at potential risk.

Due to loopholes in the law, many full-time institutions insist they are in fact part-time educational settings providing supplementary lessons for home-educated children, which are unregulated. Last year, Humanists UK also welcomed the Government’s move to introduce a compulsory register of home-educated students so that vulnerable children are no longer able to slip through the regulatory cracks between different types of provision.

When they have a faith character, illegal ‘schools’ tend to provide pupils with a narrow curriculum focused on the study of religious texts and are often fundamentalist, extreme, or isolationist in their outlook. Humanists UK has worked with Ofsted to highlight cases of examples of religious schooling including yeshivas (Jewish teaching institutions) and madrasas (Islamic teaching institutions) which are providing religious instruction to young people for up to six days a week from early in the morning to late into the evening.

Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham said:

‘A significant number of unregistered, illegal schools are operating throughout England, many of which are religious, and we know that up to 6,000 children have been identified as at risk in these schools. In many cases, children are made to study religious texts for up to 12 hours a day, they are often exposed to extremist literature, and many schools operate in environments that are dirty and unsafe.

‘But due to loopholes in the law, Ofsted’s hands have been tied and they’ve been unable to seize evidence and shut down these illegal schools. We welcome the Government’s move to take this problem seriously, as well as the announcement that there will be a consultation on broader criteria for school registration. However, they must act swiftly and give Ofsted the powers they need to protect the thousands of children currently at risk in illegal settings.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Press Manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at or phone 020 7324 3078 or 07393 344293.

Read more about Ofsted’s frustration to act on illegal schools.

Read more about Humanists UK’s response to Ofsted’s 2019 illegal schools report.

Read more about our work on illegal schools.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.