Young people attend a wide variety of educational settings beyond state schools, including independent schools, some of which are illegally unregistered, home education (EHE) and less formal settings such as supplementary schools or out of school settings (OOSS). These rightly have a lot of independence and autonomy. However, this independence needs to be balanced against ensuring all children have their rights adequately protected.

What’s the problem?

There is a large degree of cross over between all four areas, in terms of our campaigns work and the problems we seek to address.

Registered independent faith schools

Most independent schools have a religious ethos of some form. As they are not state funded such schools have a wide latitude to promote their religious beliefs and discriminate on that basis. We campaign to ensure that children attending independent schools are adequately safeguarded and that their education is not restricted on religious grounds.

Around half of schools failing to meet the independent school standards are faith based. Examples include putting pupils' safety at risk, failing to provide basic education, practicing illegal segregation, allowing extremism, operating beyond their registered capacity and failing to prepare children for life in modern Britain are sadly widespread.

Unregistered (illegal) faith schools

Countless children have 'vanished' from the education system across England. Research by the BBC found that more than 30,000 children went missing from English and Welsh schools periods during the 2014-15 academic year. Many of these children have been enrolled in unregistered and illegal 'schools' which operate without inspection or sanction. A large percentage of these schools are faith schools.

Illegal faith schools are often deliberately left unregistered to avoid regulations on the quality of education young people should receive. At these establishments, the curriculum can be very restricted. Children enrolled there leave education with limited, if any, ability to read and write in English, no qualifications and few skills for life in modern Britain. They may even be taught extremist, regressive and discriminatory social attitudes, and they do so without scrutiny.

In some parts of the country, local authorities believe there to be more illegal, unregistered faith schools than registered ones.

In January 2022, the Ofsted director responsible for unregistered schools told the Times, that hundreds of unregistered and illegal schools known to inspectors are only the "tip of the iceberg".

Elective home education (EHE)

Families may opt to home educate for a variety of reasons, and many provide an excellent education tailored to children’s needs. However, the lack of oversight means that some may not be receiving a suitable education or adequate safeguarding. The lack of a register means that children enrolled in unregistered schools can be claimed to be home educated.

In 2017 the Association of Directors of Children's Services found that "dissatisfaction with school" is the largest reason for home educating, and that "long-term home educators tend to do it for philosophical / religious reasons". They estimated that 45,000 children and young people are assumed to be receiving home schooling throughout England – with a greater number likely to be receiving such home schooling without LA's knowledge.

Out of schools education settings (OOSS)

OOSS or supplemental education is an extremely wide-ranging sector. Many settings provide excellent services and enrich the lives of children, families and communities. However, a small minority engage in institutional religious child abuse, provide cover for unregistered faith schools, and otherwise harm children’s rights or leave them vulnerable to harms.

We advocate a proportionate safeguarding focussed approach to improve registration and oversight of relevant OOSS. We support measures to prohibit corporal punishment in any OOSS and to introduce mandatory reporting for reasonable suspicions of child abuse.

Some religious groups have intensively lobbied against proposals for these proposals, including scaremongering, and claiming that such measures would lead to intrusive regulation of Sunday schools or similar religious activities.

What are we doing?

Registered independent faith schools

We have been a leading voice calling for improved standards for independent schools and advocating a children’s rights focussed approach. We regularly highlight complaints about and inspections of independent faith schools.

  • In 2013 we engaged with the DfE's consultation on proposed new Independent School Standards.
  • In 2014 we provided evidence to Ofsted's consultation on independent inspectorates.
  • In 2018 we provided evidence to a DfE consultation on the independent school regulatory system.
  • In 2020 we provided evidence to a DfE consultation on regulating independent educational institutions.

Unregistered (illegal) faith schools

We have played a critical role in exposing the scandal of unregistered faith schools.

  • For many years we have been lobbying education ministers and Ofsted to tackle the growing problem of unregistered (and therefore illegal) faith schools. Years of campaigning on this issue does appear to have been successful in changing attitudes. We have received assurances from the Department for Education that where such 'schools' are identified, the Government will take action, and take a "tougher approach to prosecuting them".
  • In 2016 Ofsted established a taskforce of inspectors to seek out unregistered schools that are operating outside the law. Warning notices have been issued to 50 suspected unregistered schools, 38 have closed or ceased to operate illegally and 12 are under criminal investigation. Ofsted has asked the DfE for a role in supporting prosecutions of unregistered schools, and is discussing with the government about removing legislative barriers to tackling these schools. In 2018 we welcomed the first successful prosecution of the proprietors of an unregistered religious school.
  • We remain highly concerned that too many children are still being left to languish in illegal 'schools' where their fundamental right to education is being ignored. In a submission to the United Nations' periodic review of the UK's record on human rights we urged the UN to recommend that the UK develops a robust strategy for addressing this issue which includes the closing down of illegal schools.
  • In 2018 we responded to a call for evidence on elective home education (EHE), raising our concern that some 'home-educated' children are in fact being sent to unregistered illegal schools.
  • In May 2019, we responded to the next stage of a consultation on proposed legislation for children not in school, to back a home school register to protect child rights and tackle unregistered schools.
  • In February 2019 we submitted evidence to a DfE consultation on establishing a voluntary safeguarding code of practice for out of school settings. We identified gaps in the guidance reiterating our concerns that children's welfare will not be adequately protected, unless the code can be made mandatory and enforced where this proportionate.
  • In January 2016 we submitted evidence to a DfE consultation on registration and inspection of on out of school education settings. We welcomed the Government's proposal to safeguard children and young people from harm, including extremism – however we stressed that any response should be proportionate, evidence-based and be focused through the lens of safeguarding rather than security.

Elective home education (EHE)

While remaining neutral on EHE, we have campaigned to improve safeguarding in and oversight of home education.

  • In 2017 we supported as private member bill to introduce a register and other safeguarding for elective home education.
  • In 2018 we provided evidence to a DfE consultation on elective home education.
  • In 2019 we provided evidence to a DfE consultation on children not in school and the possibility of an elective home education register.

Out of schools education settings (OOSS)

We advocate a proportionate safeguarding focused approach to improve registration and oversight of relevant OOSS.

  • In 2019 we submitted evidence to DfE consultation on a voluntary safeguarding code of practice for OOSS.
  • 2016 we submitted evidence to DfE consultation on possible registration and inspection of OOSS.

What you can do:

You can report an illegal school to your local education authority. They have a duty to identify children not receiving an education. Ofsted has a taskforce to investigate unregistered schools and coordinate with the CPS if necessary.

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Supporter comments

Illegal schools can only be run to avoid obeying best practice curricula and deny children a balanced education. That's abuse and denying the rights of the child. It should not be possible in a developed country.

Martin, from IPSWICH

Illegal schools can only be run to avoid obeying best practice curricula and deny children a balanced education. That's abuse and denying the rights of the child. It should not be possible in a developed country.

Martin, from IPSWICH

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More information

What does the law say?

An independent school is defined as any school at which full time education is provided for five or more pupils of compulsory school age.

The DfE considers the following factors when deciding whether an independent school is full time:

(a) the number of hours per week that is provided, if over 18 hours per week it will generally be seen as full time;

(b) the number of weeks in the academic term/year the education is provided;

(c) the time of day it is provided;

(d) whether the education provision in practice precludes the possibility that fulltime education could be provided elsewhere.

Source: Independent school registration (DFE guidance)

Under Section 96 of the Education and Skills Act 2008, in England, a person must not conduct an independent educational institution (which is defined as including independent schools) unless it is registered. A person who conducts an unregistered independent school is guilty of a criminal offence.

If Ofsted believe an unregistered school is being run illegally they have the power (under Section 97 of the Act) to enter and inspect the premises and records of the 'school'.

See also: Memorandum of understanding between Ofsted and DfE: independent schools.

The first successful prosecution for running an illegal school took place in 2018. Nacerdine Talbi and Beatrix Bernhardt were convicted of running Al-Istiqamah Learning Centre, an unregistered Islamic school in Ealing

The second successful prosecution for running an illegal school took place in 2019. On 12 September Nadia and Arshad Ali were convicted over the running of Ambassadors High School, an unregistered Islamic school in Streatham. Of the conviction, HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said:

"While I welcome today's verdict, I am concerned that this case is just the tip of the iceberg. As I have said several times over the last few years, Ofsted urgently needs stronger investigatory powers, allowing us to seize evidence and interview suspects. And we need the government to tighten the legal definition of a school. I urge them again to do so at the earliest possible opportunity."


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