Weak response from Government to child sexual abuse in illegal schools

24 May, 2023

The UK Government has failed to protect the thousands of children trapped in illegal religious schools, in its response to the final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The Government proposes only to issue new guidance to local authorities, rather than legislate. Humanists UK, which has led the campaign to close down such settings since 2014, said the Government’s proposals were ‘almost unfathomable’ and ‘not good enough’.

In September 2021 the IICSA found widespread instances of sexual abuse in illegal schools, and in October 2022 its final report highlighted that Government legislation was in the pipeline – in parts three and four of the Schools Bill – to close some of the loopholes allowing illegal schools to operate. These would have introduced a register of children educated at home (because proprietors of illegal schools often claim that children are educated at home, and only attend their establishments for supplementary religious education), widened the definition of what a ‘school’ is, and given Ofsted more powers to investigate suspected illegal schools.

However, last December the Government dropped the Schools Bill in its entirety, because of controversial aspects in part one, which was about making all state schools become academies in the next decade.

Getting parts three and four of the Schools Bill before Parliament was itself a major achievement, and followed on from eight years of campaigning by Humanists UK, six years of calls for reform from Ofsted, and four years of legislative development by the Government.

Action is urgently required because a significant number of unregistered, illegal schools still operate throughout England. Many of these are religious, and there are at least 6,000 children who attend them. In many cases, children are made to study religious texts for up to 12 hours a day with no maths, science, or other secular subjects; they are often exposed to extremist literature; and many settings operate in environments that are dirty and unsafe. Physical and sexual abuse is sadly widespread.

However, the response to the IICSA from the Government on illegal schools states that it plans only to ‘review and strengthen our existing local authority guidance on safeguarding children in unregistered independent schools and out-of-school settings, to ensure local authorities are making full use of the existing legal powers available to them, to take child protection action where concerns are identified.’

There is no commitment to bring back the draft legislation in parts three and four of the Schools Bill. A Private Member’s Bill from Conservative Flick Drummond MP to, in effect, reintroduce part three of the Bill (the register of children educated at home) was introduced last week, but is not likely to progress without Government support.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘New guidance for local authorities is simply not good enough. When in 2021 the IICSA confirmed our worst fears about the extent of child sexual abuse in illegal schools, it became abundantly clear that robust action needed to be taken. All the loopholes allowing these appalling settings to operate must be closed, and Ofsted must be given all the powers necessary to investigate.

‘It is almost unfathomable that, in response to the IICSA, the Government has left its own well-drafted legislation in parliamentary limbo, while deciding that mere revised guidance for local authorities will do the trick instead.

‘Parts three and four of the Schools Bill must return before the next election: both enjoyed cross-party support in the House of Lords. This should be an easy win for the Government, but action is stalled. Why?’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Public Affairs Manager Karen Wright at press@humanists.uk or phone 07534 248 596.

Read the Government’s response to the IICSA.

Read the final report of the IICSA.

Read our article on how the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse delared that unregistered religious schools represent a clear risk of abuse. Of the Report’s two recommendations, the second was that the government should take action.

Read our report on the government’s decision to drop the Schools Bill.

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.

Read more about our work on illegal schools.

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