Child sexual abuse inquiry raises serious alarm about illegal schools

2 September, 2021

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has today published its report on child protection in religious organisations and settings. Its report substantially focuses on issues related to out-of-school settings, particularly illegal schools. The report provides significant evidence of widespread abuse in these settings, and makes the argument that such abuse is enabled due to the lack of regulation. This is because of loopholes in the law. Closing these loopholes is one of the report’s two recommendations.

Humanists UK has been campaigning for the last seven years for action to close illegal schools. It has called today’s report a wake-up call that must be taken seriously by the Government and at last lead to swift action.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham commented:

‘For far too long the Government has been mulling over how to shut down illegal schools. In the meantime, thousands of children are being badly let down. This includes not only a failure to make sure they receive a suitable education but, as today’s report outlines, also extends to child sexual abuse and corporal punishment.

‘It is long past time that action is taken to close such settings for good. The Department for Education must now bring forward legislation as a matter of urgency.’

The report’s findings

The report explains that there are as many as half a million children attending out-of-school settings, around half of which are religious. A substantial number of these are so-called ‘unregistered schools’, also known as illegal schools. Such settings exploit loopholes in the law that mean that settings that only provide religious instruction do not meet the minimum definitions of a school and are therefore able to evade regulation. The report quotes Ofsted as saying that ‘this leads to a perverse situation where, “As the law stands, the more inadequate the educational provision, the more likely a setting is to be exempt from regulation.”’

In Humanists UK’s experience, unregistered schools with a religious character generally provide an extremely narrow curriculum. This is usually focused on learning religious scripture to the exclusion of subjects such as English, Maths, and Science. Former pupils have described leaving these ‘schools’ unable to speak English. One said he left with the education level of the average nine or ten-year-old. Illegal schools often operate in appalling conditions, with a total lack of safeguarding, and many pupils are exposed to extreme homophobic and misogynistic content, as well as physical abuse.

Today’s report outlines how this lack of regulation also results in a consequential lack of any oversight when it comes to child safeguarding. Settings have evaded child safeguarding procedures that would otherwise apply to them, and evidence of child sexual abuse and corporal punishment is widespread. The report sets out in huge detail the history of failure to tackle these issues over the last six years.

The report concludes, ‘Respect for a diversity of beliefs is a hallmark of a liberal democracy. However, freedom of religion and belief can never justify or excuse the ill-treatment of a child, or a failure to take adequate steps to protect them from harm.’ Its second of two recommendations is that ‘The government should introduce legislation to: change the definition of full-time education, and to bring any setting that is the pupil’s primary place of education within the scope of the definition of a registered educational setting; and provide the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) with sufficient powers to examine the quality of child protection when it undertakes inspections of suspected unregistered institutions.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham at or phone 020 7324 3000 or 0772 511 0860.

Read the report.

Read our most recent article on the humanist peers pressing the Government for action on illegal schools.

Read our recent article on the Charity Commission’s failure to take action on charities operating suspected illegal schools five years after being alerted to them.

Read our 2016 investigation into illegal schools operating as charities.

Read our article about illegal schools operating during lockdown.

Read more about our work on illegal schools.

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