Some of the country's most vulnerable children are being sent by local authorities to be educated in more than 1,000 unregulated institutions that the Government fears are unsafe, it has emerged.
The independent centres - thought likely to be offering pupil referral unit type services for excluded pupils, those at risk of exclusion and vulnerable children unsuitable for mainstream schools - are now set to become subject to Ofsted inspections. Ministers believe the pupils are at risk of "unsafe premises", "unsuitable staff" and "poor quality education".
Local authorities have told The TES they are uncertain which institutions the Government means.
It has been unable to provide pupil numbers or any further details: it only uncovered the existence of the institutions while investigating the impact of legislation passing through Parliament.
Ministers hope that the Education and Skills Bill, which passed its final Parliamentary reading this week, will clarify the situation by requiring them to be regulated and registered as "independent educational institutions". This new category would make them subject to Ofsted inspections covering the suitability of staff, standards of education and leadership, and pupil welfare and health and safety.
Correspondence seen by The TES reveals that the Government stumbled across the situation this summer, more than six months after the legislation was first introduced.
A telephone survey in June and July of 65 randomly selected local authorities led the Department for Children, Schools and Families to estimate there were "around 1,100" unregistered educational institutions. The councils were asked how many alternative education providers they used that were not registered as schools and which catered for secondary pupils on a long term basis, providing part-time education of more than 15 hours a week.
When the bill was first introduced, the Government said it was only aware of four institutions the new category applied to.
It stuck to this position in an official "impact assessment" on the bill, even though the document was dated July 20, weeks after the telephone survey was carried out.
In a letter seen by The TES, written in April, Jim Knight, the schools minister, explains why institutions falling into the new category should be subject to the same welfare and safety requirements as independent schools.
"We believe that doing nothing would leave an increasing number of children at risk of being educated in unsafe premises by unsuitable staff and receiving a poor quality education," he writes.
Nick Gibb, the Conservative shadow schools minister, told Parliament this week that the Government's original lack of awareness was "astonishing" and "alarming".
Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, whose correspondence with Mr Knight first revealed that the Government knew of the 1,100 institutions, said: "It strikes me as a massive oversight that the Department (DCSF) should only have discovered such a large number at such a late stage."
Lancashire County Council's pupil reintegration service has a list of nearly 100 institutions that it uses as full- or part-time alternatives to mainstream schools. They include sports centres, theatre companies, dance and music studios and a beauty therapist.
Laura Hurley, manager of the service, said she thought some of them might fall into the Government's new category.
But she said: "I would not say that any of these institutions are not providing a good quality of education with adequate health and safety because we check all of these things before we send pupils there."
A spokesman for the DCSF said: "It's important that we legislate to ensure all young people are educated in registered centres."