We are asking all our members and supporters in England to support proposed changes to the law that will make it more difficult for illegal religious schools to operate.
The Department for Education is holding a public consultation on regulating independent educational institutions. It proposes three key legal changes that will make it easier to inspect, close, and prosecute the providers of illegal religious schools:
- Widen the range of educational setting that must register with the Department for Education and establish a legal definition of ‘full time’ education
- Give the Government additional powers to change the law if providers are found to be using legal loopholes to continue to deny pupils a broad and balanced education
- Change the way the deregistration process works so that independent schools that continually fail inspections can be tackled more quickly.
We strongly support the proposals, which we have been telling the Government to bring forward since we first worked with whistleblowers to uncover the problem of illegal schools over six years ago. However, progress has been far too slow and there are still some gaps in the proposals which may enable unscrupulous providers to continue to operate. We want to see the Government act swiftly to ensure that the thousands of children who are currently at risk in illegal, unregistered settings – many of which provide only a narrow religious curriculum in appalling, unsafe conditions – are properly protected by the law.
Please, will you respond to the ‘Regulating Independent Educational Institutions‘ consultation using the online response form?
We need submissions by Friday 27 November to ensure that illegal religious schools are closed for good and the children attending them get the education they deserve in a safe environment.
7. Do you agree that any full-time setting providing education to children ought to be regulated and that what is ‘full-time’ ought to be defined more clearly?
Yes. By permitting settings that only expose their pupils to a narrowly religious curriculum to avoid registration because they don’t provide a suitable primary or secondary education, the current law incentivises these institutions to deny their pupils the broad and balanced education they deserve. It also makes it difficult for Ofsted, local authorities, and other regulatory bodies to adequately investigate, improve or close these settings, even in the most extreme cases of bad practice.
All settings that operate on a full-time basis should be registered and either the legal definition of ‘full-time’ should include institutions that provide all or most of the education received by the pupils who attend them or the range of institutions that must register should be expanded to include part-time settings that provide a substantial proportion of their pupils’ education.
8. Do you think that the department’s suggestion of 18 hours is the appropriate threshold for registration (and therefore regulation)? If not, what number of hours should be used or should there be no specified threshold?
No. Although 18 hours may be an appropriate threshold for what is to count as full-time provision, I do not think that it should mark the dividing line between settings that have to register and those that don’t. To prevent unscrupulous providers from merely cutting the hours they offer (e.g. to 17.5 hours) to avoid having to register, all settings which are responsible for a significant proportion of their pupils’ education ought to be registered.
If the Government determines that a time threshold is necessary to establish the kinds of part-time institutions that should be caught by the legislation, I would suggest that they look to the proposals laid out in the ‘Out of school education settings: call for evidence’ conducted between November 2015 and January 2016, which recommended that settings that provide ‘intensive education’ should be regulated. In this context, ‘intensive’ constitutes more than 6-8 hours per week.
12. Do you agree that the registration requirement should encompass any setting providing education and/or instruction to children of the specified age, and operating full time and during the specified hours, irrespective of the subject matter of what is taught?
Yes. Any setting that teaches school-age children full-time, particularly (though not exclusively) when that teaching takes place during the normal school day and constitutes the primary or sole source of education for its pupils, should be registered.
If, as is the case with many unregistered religious settings, this means that either the provision on offer must be broadened to meet the Independent School Standards or the institution must close, this is to be applauded.
For far too long, such settings have been permitted to treat the rights of the children who attend them as secondary to their own wish to provide a narrow religious curriculum which fails to equip those exposed to it for life in modern Britain and seriously restricts their ability to live or work outside their religious community should they wish to do so later in life. Indeed, the current law effectively rewards unregistered religious settings for providing their pupils with this kind of unsuitable education by granting them continued permission to operate with impunity. It is vital that the law is changed to prevent this from happening and that this is done at the earliest opportunity to protect the safety and educational development of thousands of children who are currently at risk in these settings.
14. Do you agree that any revised version of the registration requirement in primary legislation should contain power for subsequent changes to definitions in that version to be made by secondary legislation? If so, which definitions?
Yes, one of the key reasons that unsuitable unregistered religious settings have been able to continue operating is the fact that the providers of these settings have consciously taken advantage of the loopholes in the law that permit them to do so. In some communities – notably the Charedi Jewish community based in and around the Stamford Hill area of London where many of the first illegal schools to be uncovered by investigations by Humanists UK and others are based – there is strong opposition to the very idea of oversight and regulation of religious schools. What’s more, some of the providers of unregistered settings have vowed to continue running them even in the face of prosecution.
For this reason, it is imperative that there is flexibility built into the legislation that enables the Government, Ofsted, and other relevant authorities to act if and when those who are determined to deny the children and young people in their care access to an education that equips them for life in modern Britain, locate additional loopholes in the regulatory framework.
I therefore support the proposal that, subject to Parliamentary scrutiny, the new law makes it possible to change the legal definitions of ‘full-time’, ‘part-time’ and ‘independent educational institution’ through additional legislation.
15. Do you agree that in specified circumstances the hearing of an appeal against de-registration should be on the basis of judicial review principles rather than by way of a full merits review?
Yes. the current regulations facilitate ‘repeated cycles of improvement and deterioration,’ with some schools continuously making just enough progress for the Department to withdraw the threat of enforcement action before reverting back to poor practice. I agree that, by basing the appeals process in cases where inspections show this has happened three times in a row on the principles of judicial review rather than a full merits review, this proposal will better enable de-registration where it is necessary. It will also act as a strong incentive for schools wishing to stay on the register to maintain the improvements they make following a poor inspection and thus ensure that the children attending such schools receive an education that is fully in line with the statutory independent school standards.