Amendments to the Schools Bill were debated in the House of Lords last night that would improve the UK Government’s plans to tackle illegal schools. Humanists UK has led the campaign for many years to close down such ‘schools’ in England, many of which are religiously extreme in nature with little to no secular education offered, and poor safeguarding. The Government’s long-awaited plans are mostly very good, but two loopholes identified by Humanists UK merited further discussion. In response, the Government pledged to work with Ofsted to see if such loopholes could be closed.
The two amendments to the Bill, tabled by Baroness Meacher (Crossbench) were as follows:
- Full-time education
As drafted, the Schools Bill proposed to regulate only independent educational institutions providing ‘all or the majority’ of pupils’ education. This may run the risk of encouraging new part-time settings that are just below the threshold to be created, in order to evade the rules. For example, it could be that a setting splits in two, with one operating in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
Therefore Baroness Meacher tabled an amendment to address this by enabling the Government to adopt a less restrictive definition than that of ‘all or a majority’ of a child’s education, should it prove necessary to do so. Importantly however, it would have kept the definition above one quarter of the child’s education, meaning that it would not inadvertently affect common after school clubs, for example music, sports, religious study, and so on.
- Access for inspectors to ‘schools’ located in dwellings
Many illegal schools disguise themselves as dwellings in order to evade the authorities. As currently drafted, clause 63 of the Bill does not allow Ofsted inspectors to enter premises that are being used as a dwelling, unless they have a warrant. This would cause delays and could even prejudice investigations after the event, invalidating evidence.
With this in mind, Baroness Meacher also tabled an amendment to clarify that a warrant will only be required where consent has not been given for entry, and where the setting ‘visibly appears’ to be a dwelling. This would stop inspectors from needing to get a warrant as a precaution even for settings that turn out not to be a dwelling, thus slowing inspections down. It would also stop inspectors from running the risk of only discovering they need a warrant after they have already knocked on the door, and by so doing therefore tipping off the setting to the impending inspection.
Introducing her amendments, Baroness Meacher thanked Humanists UK for its support. She then explained that:
‘The proprietors of some such settings know that if they are inspected, they will have to choose between changing to something very different and closing down. They are therefore very wily… Without doubt, as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, these proprietors… will get together and split their provision into separate morning and afternoon settings, or some other configuration such as one teacher taking kids in the morning, another in the afternoon. Neither will then be subject to registration… I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on this loophole and whether the Government are content to see these extremist schools escape the important purpose of this Bill… My amendment… has been carefully thought through. By applying registration only to establishments providing at least a quarter of a child’s education, it would not catch common after-school classes in music, sport or, indeed, religion. I very much hope the Minister will feel able to accept it.’
She then went on to explain the importance of her amendment on warrants for private dwellings:
‘I hope the Minister will therefore ask officials to give serious consideration to the following two points. First, the current drafting of Clause 63 is poor and risks making matters worse for Ofsted inspectors. The element of surprise is so important, yet Clause 63 seems to reduce the scope for that surprise. Secondly, the clause does not clarify what a private dwelling is. Will the Minister ensure that, if possible, a definition of a private dwelling for the purposes of the Bill is given in it?’
Baroness Whitaker (Labour, and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group), rose in support of both amendments:
‘I should like briefly to add my support to these two very sensible amendments, which would stop unscrupulous unregistered schools circumventing the law and speed up the inspection process.’
Lord Mendelsohn (Labour) also gave his backing to the proposals:
‘I strongly support the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher… I think she has a very correct estimate of the challenges and has presented some situations that are rather familiar in how they will be used to try to circumvent the Bill.’
Lord Storey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman who has also campaigned to close illegal schools for many years, backed Baroness Meacher’s amendments and explained:
‘I met with people from Ofsted yesterday—and I have had a long-running dialogue with Ofsted over the issue of unregistered schools… I hope between Committee and Report, the Government might look at this again. It would be silly to have got so far, and not be able to deal with that last bit where they morph into private dwellings. I know the Minister is very keen that we deal with this, and so I hope she will think carefully about that.
Meanwhile the Labour frontbench spokeswoman Baroness Chapman praised the approach:
‘The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is a characteristically sensible suggestion. I hope that the Government are mindful and assure the House that there is no loophole or that an amendment will be used to close it.’
Responding for the Government, Baroness Barran (Conservative) explained that the Government felt that regulating part-time settings in this way was not appropriate – but nevertheless that they would look again at the issue:
‘I turn to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Regulating part-time settings would address the risk that currently unregistered full-time provision is split into separate settings. I know this is also a concern of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. However, most part-time provision does serve a legitimate purpose, and this risks interrupting the support and education that those settings provide, where it is provided legitimately. We believe that automatically applying the regulatory regime for independent schools to therapeutic and part-time settings would be inappropriate and likely to introduce unnecessary burdens. However, we will look at this again in the light of the call for evidence.’
Baroness Barran then dismissed the amendment on access to private dwellings, feeling that it could constitute overreach on behalf of the authorities:
‘The powers as drafted aim to balance the need to enable Ofsted to search effectively with the safeguarding of civil liberties. This amendment would risk disrupting that balance. I know that the noble Baroness’s concern is that one would lose the element of surprise if inspectors went to an address and then had to go away and get a warrant, but requiring warrants before people’s homes are searched, particularly where consent is not given to enter the property, is a proportionate safeguard.’
This response failed to address the important proviso in the amendment – that it would only have applied where Ofsted’s access to a premises had actually been granted. Nevertheless, Baroness Barran did commit to meeting with Ofsted before the next stage of the Bill, to ensure that discussions around closing these loopholes could take place. The amendments were withdrawn.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘We’ve come so far in our campaign to shut down these appalling so-called schools. It would be incredibly frustrating if loopholes were created in the new law right at the beginning. I pay tribute to Baroness Meacher for her own tireless lobbying in Parliament to help ensure we get everything right in this vital work.
‘We didn’t expect the Government to accept these amendments immediately, however its response last night was encouraging and I hope that Ofsted’s concerns will be assuaged in their forthcoming meetings. If not, we will work to bring similar amendments back at the next stage of the Bill.’
Humanists UK is also campaigning to improve the Schools Bill by including provision to reform RE and replace collective worship with inclusive assemblies.
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.
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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