Ofsted has issued a stark warning today about what it describes as the “murky world” of illegal schools.
The inspectorate has been looking for unregistered schools across the country for the past three years, amid concerns that pupils are being placed at risk because there is no oversight of the safeguarding, health and safety or the quality of education being provided.
But its attempts to find illegal schools are being hampered by a lack of power to investigate and a system which allows people to avoid scrutiny by operating on what the inspectorate describes as “the cusp of the law”.
Quick read: Ofsted needs powers to tackle illegal schools
Ofsted’s deputy director in charge of the Unregistered Schools Taskforce, Victor Shafiee, said: “The problem is the more incompetent the school is, the more difficult it is to prosecute.”
An unregistered school is defined as a setting that is operating as an independent school, without registration. It is a criminal offence to operate an unregistered independent school in England.
However, to be required to register as a school, a setting must be providing full-time education to at least five children of compulsory school age, and offer a curriculum that includes maths and English.
Government guidance suggests a full-time education is anything above 18 hours a week.
Ofsted says these rules mean some providers they find cannot be judged as a school as they only offer religious instruction or they operate for 17 hours and 50 minutes per week.
Not only this but Ofsted inspectors do not have the power to seize evidence.
Ofsted’s taskforce, set up in 2016, has investigated 521 cases and inspected 259 sites since 2016.
Of these 71 have been issued with warning notices where Ofsted believes they are operating an illegal school.
Ofsted said that 15 of those settings have since closed, while 39 have changed the way they operate in order to comply with the law, and nine have registered as independent schools.
Ofsted also helped secure the first prosecution for running an illegal school and said today that there are two more court cases due to take place this year.
But it warns that it could do more if it was able to seize evidence during inspections.
Sue Will, an inspector on the taskforce, said that when she visited a suspect illegal school, she was dependant on people providing her with the information she needed.
And Mr Shafiee: “If we want to look at a children’s book we have to take pictures of every page. What should be an easy offence to prosecute becomes like a mini-fraud investigation with hundreds, sometimes thousands of documents.”
And the government has indicated that it does intend to strengthen Ofsted’s hand.
In the Integrated Communities Action Plan, published earlier this year it said: "We intend to legislate to strengthen Ofsted’s powers in relation to unregistered schools and work closely with Ofsted on the proposed changes in 2019.”
The question is when will Ofsted actually get these increased powers to tackle illegal schools. The Government plan says changes will be made at a “suitable legislative opportunity”
In a Westminster consumed with Brexit turmoil such opportunities might be few and far between. But at least Ofsted’s case has been heard.