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Dangerous schools to be closed in a month

Ministers propose to take swift action against private institutions that put children's health and safety at risk. Cherry Canovan reports.

DANGEROUS and unhygienic private schools will be closed down in four weeks under tough regulations being proposed by the Government.

The move follows shocking accounts from the Office for Standards in Education about the state of some fee-paying schools.

The new rules should also get rid of a loophole whereby a school which is closed by the Department for Education and Skills can promptly re-open under a different name.

Inspectors have warned about the risk of vermin in schools with overflowing skips and open bin bags. In recent years they have also discovered faulty electrical wiring and inadequate lighting.

Their reports have included a school with a derelict top floor containing piles of bird droppings and another where building work meant broken glass was found in areas where pupils played football.

One school's report said: "Rubbish at the rear of the building is a hazard to health and safety and an eyesore. There were two overflowing skips, open bin bags, with food waste, discarded clothing and builders' materials. The potential for infestation by vermin is substantial."

Another said: "Many of the switches and plugs throughout the building require attention and some electric wiring and sockets are exposed. The lighting on staircases and other circulation areas is inadequate."

At the moment it takes six months for inspectors to enforce closure of a school. Only five schools have been closed in this way in the past five years. New powers will allow removal from the register of independent schools, subject to a 28-day appeal.

A DFES spokesman said: "There is going to be a fast-track procedure in cases where pupils' welfare is at risk. In those cases, a school will be immediately removed from the register."

Even where conditions are not bad enough to warrant closure, standards will be tightened up.

The spokesman added: "A new standard is proposed whereby all independent schools will be required to have in place policies and practices that secure the welfare, health and safety of all pupils."

OFSTED reports contain examples of cases where schools have been struck off the Register of Independent Schools but opened again under another name straight away with the same proprietor, staff and pupils.

The DFES said new, tougher regulations would mean that this was no longer possible. "If a school is closed under those circumstances and applies for registration as a new school with just a change of name ... it would not meet the new standards and therefore would not be permitted to open," a spokesman said.

The Independent Schools Council welcomed the measures. "The current basic legal requirements which independent schools must meet have remained unchanged since Rab Butler's day. It is high time they were reviewed and brought up to date," it said.

Preliminary consultation on the regulations has been completed and a second round is planned for late spring or summer this year.

WHAT THE INSPECTORS SAW

Some of the defects listed in OFSTED reports:

* Exposed electric wiring and sockets.

* Inadequate lighting on staircases.

* Rubbish that presented a hazard to health and safety.

* Substantial potential for infestation by vermin.

* Crumbling plasterwork around doorframes and sinks.

* No hand-drying facilities near to washbasins.

* Two broken toilet cisterns with no chain pulls.

* A derelict top floor containing piles of bird droppings.

* Broken glass found in areas used by pupils to play football.

* Overflowing skips and open bin bags with food waste.

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