Today’s news from Ofsted that they have identified around 6,000 children being educated in illegal unregistered "schools" should shame everyone in education.
During my time at the inspectorate, where I worked until recently, I was regularly appalled by the reports coming back from Ofsted’s investigation of these schools – unsafe and unsanitary conditions, narrow curricular and children being exposed to extremist views. And the inspectors trying to deal with the problem with one hand tied behind their back because of a legal framework that isn’t fit for purpose.
What’s even more depressing is that many of these schools are unregistered alternative provision – educating some of our most vulnerable young people who have, for whatever reason, been excluded from the mainstream. These are the children who are most desperately in need of a fresh start, a second chance, and yet we are consigning them to provision that isn’t even subject to a basic inspection of safeguarding or quality of education.
It’s particularly perverse that while a debate is raging about the role of exclusions in contributing to the rise in knife crime, far less attention is being given to what actually happens to children when they are excluded. We know that excluded children are at much higher risk of being drawn into criminal activity and gangs, and yet we are allowing too many of them to be educated in sub-standard institutions, where we simply have no idea what is being done to keep them out of crime.
Undoubtedly there are some great unregistered providers, doing fantastic work to give excluded young people the support, education and training they need to get back on track. But these providers should have nothing to fear from registering. That is why at the New School Network, where I am director, we are today calling on the government to properly tighten its definition of what constitutes a school. That means introducing a legal requirement for any institution teaching children for more than eight hours a week, to register and be subject to Ofsted inspection. If providers refuse to register they should be closed. We simply cannot take these risks with young people’s education.
We are also calling on local authorities to introduce an immediate moratorium on the use of unregistered alternative provision.
When I joined New Schools Network last month, I was delighted to be doing so during a time of real momentum behind the free school policy. But the fact is local authorities are not commissioning enough AP free schools: there are only two in the most recent wave.
At NSN, we surveyed open free schools and asked if they felt there was a need for additional alternative provision places in their areas – 100 per cent responded in the affirmative. No wonder, then, that excluded pupils are instead being funnelled into unregistered provision when choices are limited.
What makes this particularly frustrating is that we know that properly regulated state alternative provision works, is highly rated by Ofsted and makes a real difference for young people. You only have to look at some of the amazing AP free schools like Harmonize Academy in Liverpool, the Boxing Academy in London and the Fermain Academy in Macclesfield to see young people being offered a lifeline to a fresh start. So we are also calling on the government to launch a new central process for approving AP free schools that removes the perverse incentives that stop local authorities for bidding for free schools and ensures that no excluded child has to face being educated in poor quality alternative provision.
All too often it’s easy to think of excluded pupils as other people’s children, but if we’re serious about tackling knife crime, gang violence and giving kids a second shot, we need to stop blaming schools for exclusion and instead make sure that when kids are excluded they get the support they deserve.
It simply isn’t good enough to keep excluded kids ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’ in unregistered provision that may be unsafe, and offers no guarantee of a better future. Instead, we need to learn from the success of existing AP free schools and – quite simply – build more of them.
Today’s news from Ofsted must be the last call to action to the government and local authorities. The time to clamp down on unregistered and illegal provision is now.
Luke Tryl is director of the New Schools Network