The UK Government-appointed independent review into religion, the Bloom Review, has called for action to close illegal schools. Humanists UK has welcomed the call, having led the campaign for the last decade.
Currently, illegal religious schools are able to continue to operate due to loopholes in the law, including no regulations to capture settings that don’t teach secular subjects; insufficient powers for Ofsted to tackle such settings; and no register of children not in school.
The result is that children are left trapped in settings where they are seriously unsafe. Ofsted estimates that around 6,000 children are currently receiving their education in such settings. They often operate in cramped, unhygienic conditions, where there is an appalling lack of safeguarding. The curriculum is usually narrow, focused on learning religious scripture (sometimes including extreme misogynistic and homophobic content) to the exclusion of other basic subjects such as English, Maths, and Science. Former pupils of these schools have described leaving unable to speak English and with the education level of the average nine or ten-year-old. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found widespread evidence of sexual abuse.
Author of the report Colin Bloom makes clear reference to safeguarding concerns, and recommended that:
‘Government should ensure that ‘out-of-school settings’ which include faith-based settings operating below the current minimum threshold for registration as independent schools, and those that provide supplementary religious instruction, are properly registered and regulated (creating a new registration scheme and/or mandatory safeguarding reporting regime governed by a centralised oversight body as necessary). They should also ensure appropriate resources are allocated to meet children’s welfare and safeguarding requirements.’ (Recommendation 8).
This recommendation is particularly timely. Last year the Government introduced such legislation through the Schools Bill, which would have respectively introduced a register of children educated at home, and tightened the definition of a ‘school’ thereby giving Ofsted greater powers to inspect such settings. These aspects of the Bill received very broad support as the Bill completed most of the stages in the House of Lords. However in December the Government abandoned the Bill because an entirely separate part of it proved to be unpopular. Since then ministers have said they still want to legislate, but only if time becomes available for such a Bill. They have not said if this will happen, or if so, when.
It is paramount that new legislation be introduced and passed before the next election.
Furthermore, the Bloom Review recommendation explicitly calls for action on part-time religious settings, bringing them into a regulatory framework. This recommendation goes beyond the plans in the now aborted Schools Bill, which would have only legislated to tackle full-time settings. Earlier proposals to tackle part-time settings stalled partly due to concern from, for example, the major churches that Sunday schools would be regulated. That was in spite of the fact that those efforts focused on settings that had pupils for more than eight hours a week. Humanists UK has welcomed this new recommendation as well.
The Review also made reference to the role of faith schools, including illegal schools, in forced marriage, saying that:
‘…the depth and coverage of such educational material [on forced marriage] is insufficient, especially since some faith-based educational establishments (including faith based out-of-school settings which aren’t technically schools, but where some children may spend most of the day) can and do opt out from certain aspects of relationships and sex education.’
Humanists UK’s Faith to Faithless team works to support people leaving high control religions, some of whom will have been subjected to forced marriage.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘Unregistered schools have been failing children for years, leaving them exposed to sexual predators and unable to thrive in modern Britain. We have been working with survivors of these schools for over a decade now, urging the Government to protect the most vulnerable in our society. During this time some children have missed their entire education.
‘With that in mind, I am really pleased to see this recommendation on illegal schools in yesterday’s report, and that it also recommends tackling part-time settings. The Government was nearly there in taking action, but the plans are now in Parliamentary limbo. It’s not too late to bring them back in the lifetime of this Parliament, and we’re now calling upon the Government to do just that as a matter of urgency.’
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.
Read Colin Bloom’s report ‘Does government do God?’
Read our article about the Bloom Review.
Read more about our work on illegal religious schools.
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