The Schools Bill, which contains long-awaited measures to tackle illegal schools, was debated for the first time in the House of Lords on Monday. The debate took place during the Bill’s Second Reading – the stage at which the broad principles of a bill are discussed. Humanists UK, which has long campaigned against illegal religious schools, said it was delighted so many peers spoke out in support of the measures, and on other matters to do with religion in education. Those speaking out included members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG).
The draft legislation is important because a significant number of unregistered, illegal schools are operating throughout England, many of which are religious, and at least 6,000 children have been identified as in them. 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. Due to loopholes in the law – for example around the definition of what is a school, and the lack of a home education register – Ofsted’s hands are currently tied. They have been unable to seize evidence and shut them down.
To close these loopholes, part three of the Bill will introduce compulsory registration by local authorities of children not in school, also dubbed a home education register. This will help to close a loophole exploited by proprietors of illegal schools, who claim they are merely providing supplementary religious instruction to children otherwise educated at home. It will also protect children from other forms of abuse. At the moment, home-educated children can be entirely invisible to authorities.
Meanwhile part four contains the measures to increase the regulation of, and Ofsted’s powers to inspect, ‘independent educational institutions’. The definition of an ‘independent educational institution’ will be expanded to include any place that provides a majority of education for more than five children. Ofsted will get new powers of inspection. It will be able to request police assistance where necessary, and new criminal offences will be created for proprietors. Humanists UK hopes that this will capture many illegal settings that hitherto have evaded detection by the authorities, by simply not meeting the definition of an independent school.
The other parts of the Bill address the Government’s aspiration for all schools in England to become academies over the next decade. Part one takes rules around academies that are currently in their funding agreements (i.e. contracts they’ve signed with the Government to access state funding), and either puts them directly into law or allows the Secretary of State to do so by regulations. Those aspects being put directly into law are faith academies’ RE, collective worship, and trust governance. The provisions largely match those in the funding agreements. This unfortunately means that anachronistic requirements for a narrow RE curriculum and compulsory worship in state-funded schools – dating back to the 1940s – are being freshly legislated in 2022.
During the debate, Baroness Bakewell, Co-Chair of the APPHG, welcomed the clamp-down on illegal schools. But she also echoed Humanists UK’s alarm at fresh legislation on collective worship and narrowly focused RE in the state sector:
‘Since 2014, Humanists UK has been campaigning to close down unregistered, illegal schools… I welcome the Bill’s intention to expand registration requirements for independent educational institutions and to work with Ofsted to expand investigatory powers. I cannot emphasise too much the need to rescue children from such institutions that are outside the scrutiny that ensures their safety and well-being, and a wide-ranging secular education…
‘I appreciate that most of the intentions of this Bill concern structure and the administration of educational provision, but there is also a great segment about religious provision. I ask the Government to take on board this heavy, important and significant part of children’s education, and to look to be more inclusive and positive.’
Lord Addington agreed with the illegal schools provisions, stating:
‘We should have done this long ago, so I congratulate the Government on that. If we are going to deal with this and make sure we go on, we need, again, an indication of the thinking that will go with it. We should recognise more publicly the idea that you are regulated and cannot just teach a narrow religious focus.’
Baroness Meacher also welcomed the clauses on tackling illegal schools. She suggested how the proposals could be strengthened further:
‘I hope we can have meaningful discussions with Ministers about the definition of an independent educational institution, restricted as it seems to be in the Bill at the moment to those that provide “a majority” of education for more than five children. This definition risks those establishments wishing to remain below the radar simply dividing their service in two—a morning school and an afternoon school—thus avoiding inspection. Can the Minister explain the thinking behind the limitation of Part 4 to institutions providing the majority of education? Do the Government have a solution to deal with these illegal schools seeking to evade inspection?’
In welcoming the measures to tackle illegal schools through the home education register, outgoing shadow education minister Lord Watson praised APPHG member Lord Soley for his campaigning over the years:
‘Part 3, on school attendance, is overdue and to be welcomed. I join many noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Soley and the noble Lord, Lord Storey. My noble friend’s 2017 Private Member’s Bill called for the establishment of a register of children not in school, and I am pleased to say his tireless efforts now have their reward in Clause 48 of the Bill.’
Of the more than 40 Peers who spoke last night, only a few were not fully behind the Government’s plans to tackle illegal schools. Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbenches supported the Government. Having passed its second reading, the Schools Bill will now go into Committee Stage on 8 June, where amendments will be laid and discussed.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘It’s a thrilling moment when something for which you have campaigned for so long, finally makes it onto the floor of the House of Lords as a Government proposal. I’m delighted that yesterday so many peers spoke up in support of these measures to tackle illegal faith schools. Humanists UK has been banging this drum for eight long years. While we’ve come so far during that time, the fight isn’t over yet: we want to ensure all possible loopholes are closed. However I’m confident with such widespread, cross-party support, we will be able to make a strong case for ironing out any creases as the Bill progresses.
‘We also think that the Schools Bill is also an opportunity to improve religious education provision to make it more inclusive of humanism. And it’s a chance to tackle anachronistic compulsory collective worship laws – so we will be working with peers on such amendments in time for Committee Stage next month.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Watch the debate on the Parliament TV website (starts at 3:20pm).
Read the transcript of the debate on the Parliament website.
Visit the Schools Bill page on the Parliament website.
Read our article on the Queen’s Speech.
Read our exposé on illegal schools operating during lockdown.
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