Ofsted annual report calls for action on illegal schools and improved Religious Education

24 November, 2023

Ofsted has called on the UK Government to take action on illegal schools. The call came in Ofsted’s latest annual report which was published yesterday. The report also highlighted that religious education (RE) provision in English state schools is ‘not fit for purpose’, and that independent faith schools perform very badly in Ofsted inspections. Humanists UK, which has led the campaign to close down illegal schools for a decade, called  for higher standards in private faith schools, and lobbies for improved and inclusive RE teaching, has welcomed the report and asked the UK Government to ‘pay heed’.

Illegal Schools

Legislation to tackle illegal schools – many of which are religious in nature and provide a very narrow religious curriculum with no maths or English, and very little safeguarding in place – was dropped by the Government a year ago and did not reappear in the King’s Speech earlier this month. In its report, Ofsted stated that the lack of legislation means its unregistered schools team’s hands are tied when it comes to taking effective action:

‘The weaknesses in the legal framework that were publicised during debates on the [Schools] Bill are now common knowledge. These weaknesses continue to hamper our efforts to investigate unregistered schools and prosecute offenders.’

The report goes on to state that inspectors:

‘regularly found unregistered schools operating from unsafe and inappropriate premises; unregistered providers led by profoundly unsuitable people, including some with criminal convictions; children receiving an extremely limited curriculum, without coverage of basic skills such as English or mathematics.’

Furthermore the report laid out the reasons why a compulsory register of children educated at home is needed:

‘Sometimes, children who are nominally in home education are actually in illegal schools… Legislation for a register of children not in school (CNIS) is now needed to improve information – locally and nationally – and to introduce new safeguards so that no child misses out on a suitable education.’

Religious Education

Humanists UK believes that RE should become an inclusive and impartial subject allowing pupils to explore a variety of religions and non-religious worldviews such as humanism, sitting alongside other humanities subjects in the curriculum and with the same status as them. For this reason humanists must be represented on the bodies that set the curriculum locally, and a humanist recently won a High Court challenge on this very issue. If pupils are not taught the subject in a manner reflective of modern demographics, it risks being irrelevant to young people. Therefore it is essential that it is taught well, with a curriculum that is fully inclusive of non-religious worldviews like humanism.

However, Ofsted’s report found that currently this is far from the case:

‘in too many primary and secondary schools, the RE that pupils receive is of a poor quality and not fit for purpose, leaving pupils ill-equipped for some of the complexities of contemporary society… Current non-statutory guidance for RE should be updated and include clear information for schools about the breadth and depth of the syllabus they are expected to teach’.

Government guidance on RE has not been updated since 2010, and currently fails adequately to reflect modern case law on inclusivity of non-religious worldviews. The Fox judgment of 2015 on curriculum content, and now the Bowen judgment of 2023 on membership of local RE bodies, both need to be incorporated into new guidance. Only in this way can schools and the bodies that set the RE curriculum get a clear steer on how to bring the subject up to date, as explained in legal guidance provided by Professor Satvinder Juss of King’s College London.

Independent faith schools

Finally, Ofsted’s report confirmed what Humanists UK has known about, and highlighted, for some time: private faith schools are the worst when it comes to poor educational standards. There have been many instances where private faith schools have taught biased or unscientific curriculums, or been overtly influenced by religious ideology to the detriment of secular education, or failed to provide their pupils with accurate relationships and sex education.

On this matter, Ofsted states:

‘It is clear that independent faith schools have relatively poor inspection outcomes compared with either faith schools in the state sector or with other independent schools. Of the independent faith schools we inspect, 39% are judged less than good, including 19% judged inadequate.’

Moreover, some private faith schools remain open despite repeatedly failing Ofsted inspections.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘Elements of this annual report from Ofsted read like a compendium of many of the education issues Humanists UK has been shouting about for years. So I welcome the light shone on those from Ofsted this week. Whether it’s illegal schools, poor standards in private faith schools, or RE reform, it is high time for decision makers to pay heed to the experts. The Government must:

  • Urgently legislate to shut down illegal schools
  • Shut down all private faith schools that repeatedly fail inspections
  • Revise RE guidance and support better teacher training.’

Need to navigate Religion in Schools? Download our Religion in Schools Guide

Notes

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at press@humanists.uk or phone 07534 248 596.

Read the Annual Report of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector 2022/23.

Read more about our work on religious education, illegal schools, and private faith schools.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 110,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.