Unregistered school investigations nearly double in one year

Posted: Mon, 27th Nov 2023

Ofsted annual report also finds Religious Education in schools "not fit for purpose"

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Ofsted opened 190 investigations into unregistered schools, many of them faith schools, in the last year.

The figure is almost double that of the previous twelve months, which saw over 100 new investigations opened.

The new figures were published in Ofsted's latest annual report, published last week, which said "thousands of children" across England are being educated in unregistered settings.

Ofsted: Children taught by people with criminal convictions in unregistered schools

It said it regularly found unregistered settings to be operating from "unsafe and inappropriate premises", being led by "profoundly unsuitable people, including some with criminal convictions", and teaching "extremely limited" curricula.

In last year's report, Ofsted said around a fifth of unregistered schools showed evidence of having a faith ethos. It also noted that children at unregistered schools were sometimes exposed to "misogynistic, homophobic, and extremist materials that are contrary to British values".

Unregistered schools are illegal and those who run them are committing a criminal offence. The National Secular Society has long warned that some religious groups use unregistered schools to evade scrutiny of their activities so they can prioritise fundamentalist religious ideology over the education and welfare needs of children.

NSS research has previously revealed 17% of individuals legally prohibited from running a school are banned due to their involvement in an unregistered faith school.

Despite the increased number of investigations, just six additional warning notices were issued to educational settings that appeared to be breaking the law, with 25 notices issued compared to last year's 19.

Ofsted expressed disappointment that the Schools Bill, which would have closed loopholes in the registration system and strengthened Ofsted's powers of investigation, was dropped in December 2022.

It said weaknesses in the legal framework "continue to hamper our efforts to investigate unregistered schools and prosecute offenders" were now "common knowledge".

Religious Education in schools "not fit for purpose"

In its report, Ofsted also criticised the provision of religious education (RE) which it said was "generally of a poor quality" and "not fit for purpose", leaving pupils ill-equipped for the complexities of contemporary society.

It said schools often consider RE an "afterthought", and that a lack of "clarity and support" from government is making schools' jobs harder.

The NSS recently urged the government to replace RE with a subject "more suited to 21st century school", saying the unwillingness of many schools in England to teach RE "reflects the prevailing public sentiment that RE is out of date, unpopular and lacking a clear purpose".

Independent schools with a faith ethos more likely to be failing

Ofsted's report also revealed that independent faith schools are far more likely to be judged inadequate than other types of independent school.

It said several factors specific to the faith-based character of schools contributed to these poor standards. This included schools which seek to only prepare children for life within a particular religious community, leading to the restriction of knowledge about the wider world.

This involved giving limited time to secular subjects or avoiding teaching aspects of relationships, sex and health education, as well as not teaching about fundamental British values, particularly around mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

NSS: 'Report highlights need for action on unregistered schools'

NSS campaigns officer Jack Rivington said: "Ofsted's latest annual report once again demonstrates why its powers should be enhanced as a matter of urgency in order to tackle the issue of unregistered schools.

"The government's inaction is leaving children at a risk of harm from illegal educational settings run by fundamentalist religious groups who avoid teaching anything contrary to their regressive worldviews."

"Ofsted's findings on religious education also reflect the subject's outdated and unpopular nature. An expanded, nationally-determined civics and citizenship subject which teaches about religious and nonreligious worldviews would be more useful and appropriate to the needs of modern British society."

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Tags: RE, Unregistered schools