Peers from across the House of Lords challenged the UK Government yesterday over its failure to shut down illegal schools. Crossbench peer Lord Warner, who is also Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG), posed the question to the Government ‘whether they intend to re-introduce legislation to close down unregistered schools and, if so, when; and what further safeguarding action could be undertaken until any such legislation is passed?’ Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat peers intervened supportively during the ensuing debate.
Humanists UK, which since 2014 has led the campaign to close down illegal schools, many of which are highly religious in nature, worked with Lord Warner to get the question tabled and briefed peers ahead of the debate. It agrees with Lord Warner and is calling for the legislation to return before the next election.
Currently, illegal religious schools are able to continue to operate due to loopholes in the law, including a lack of regulations to capture settings that don’t teach anything other than religious scripture; insufficient powers for Ofsted to tackle such settings; and no register of children not in school. These loopholes were due to be closed by parts of the Government’s Schools Bill – but for unrelated reasons the Bill was dropped in its entirety by the Government last December.
The result is that children are left trapped in settings where they are seriously unsafe. Ofsted estimates that at least 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 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.
In yesterday’s debate several of Lord Warner’s colleagues added weight to his concerns, and shared details of the reasons why they felt the legislation should return as soon as possible.
Lord Warner himself highlighted that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse had uncovered child sexual abuse in such settings, and that the Government-sponsored Bloom Review into religion had also called for action. He challenged the Government about dragging its heels on legislation, stating that ministers first knew about the need to take action as long ago as 2015.
Baroness Whitaker of the Labour Party, a member of the APPHG, made reference to recent media coverage of former pupils, who reported that that the curriculum provided to them was very poor and that they deserved an urgent response from the Government.
Lord Addington of the Liberal Democrats’ frontbench made the point that there was cross-party support for the relevant parts of the Schools Bill and that it was not controversial to take the action required to shut down these schools.
Labour peer Baroness Blackstone stressed that despite the terminology, these are not ‘schools’ in any modern sense of the word: they are illegal institutions with no safeguarding in place. She went on to state that the loopholes need to be closed and demanded to know why the Government was doing nothing.
Baroness Twycross spoke from the Labour frontbench. She again raised the point that loopholes were being openly exploited, and asked the Government how it was tracking such settings, demanding more clarity from the Government as to exactly when the legislation might return.
Liberal Democrat Baroness Burt, Vice-Chair of the APPHG, challenged the minister to focus on the children at the centre of this scandal, and how they are unprepared for life in modern Britain and forced to study a narrow curriculum with no English, maths, or science.
Lord Watts from the Labour Party made the point that the state has a responsibility for its citizens, and that it was quite clear that the Government has failed these children by dropping the legislation. He said it was time for the Government to stop talking and ‘start doing’.
Baroness Berridge of the Conservative Party talked about the importance of a home education register, challenging the Government about what its plans were in that regard, and if legislation was necessary.
Baroness Barran responded for the Government and stated once again that it will legislate ‘when a suitable opportunity arises’ and that it was working closely with Ofsted and local authorities in the meantime. She did express a concern for the children suffering in these settings, but (as on previous occasions) gave no indication as to when the legislation may return.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘I’m delighted that Lord Warner and his colleagues have held the Government to account in this way. It’s utterly shameful that it got so close to legislating to shut down these appalling so-called schools, and then decided it had better priorities.
‘Everybody knows that proprietors of illegal schools will exploit every possible loophole to avoid scrutiny. The only thing that will stop them is primary legislation to provide the authorities such as Ofsted and the police with the powers they need to investigate and shut down suspected illegal schools. Thousands of children continue to be failed. The legislation must return before the next election.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at email@example.com or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Read more about our work on illegal religious schools.
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