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Unregistered Schools

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they intend to re-introduce legislation to close down unregistered schools and, if so, when; and what further safeguarding action could be undertaken until any such legislation is passed.

My Lords, it is already an offence to conduct an unregistered school. The Government will always prosecute when it is in the public interest. We work closely with Ofsted to make effective use of its current powers to investigate unregistered schools. We recognise that improved powers would better enable effective action, which is why we intend to introduce legislation in this area at the next available opportunity.

My Lords, I note that particular response, which is not at all unexpected. I assume that the Minister and her colleagues are familiar with the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the recent Bloom Review, both of which reveal widespread child sexual abuse in religious settings. Well before these reports, the Government knew as long ago as 2015 that Ofsted lacked the enforcement powers needed to deal with these unregistered religious schools. Given the urgency of this situation for vulnerable children at serious risk of harm, will the Government commit to legislation on religious schools in the next Session? If they cannot do this, will they perhaps consider supporting and helping a Private Member’s Bill on this subject to strengthen Ofsted’s powers? In the meantime, will DfE encourage Ofsted, social services and the police to take stronger safeguarding measures in respect of the most concerning religious schools?

The noble Lord raises a number of important points, and I think he would agree with me that the vast majority of religious schools deliver a safe and very valued service to the children and families they work with. But of course he is right that there will be safeguarding exceptions in every setting and every community, and we are determined to address those when legislative time allows.

My Lords, I add to the plea for urgency by drawing attention to recent media coverage of former pupils from such settings. Some did not speak any English at school and others had no English, maths or science taught to them, only a very narrow religious curriculum. It is very important to rescue those children; surely they deserve an urgent response from the Government.

The Government need to strike a very delicate balance. I think we in this House would all agree that parents are ultimately responsible for ensuring that their children get a good education. Local authorities already have significant powers to check the quality of that education, and we are working closely with them and with parents, updating our guidance in this area, because we are all committed to making sure that every child has a safe and suitable education.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to take back to the Government the fact that we did not object to the part of the Bill that had this capacity in it? We did not like the first bit but we did like the second, and the Government dumped it all. Can she take back that we will probably help as much as we can to get that legislation on the statute book as soon as we can?

My Lords, I feel extremely disappointed by the complacent reply that the Minister has given to these questions. It is all very well to refer to religious schools doing a very good job—they often do—but these are not schools. These are institutions that describe themselves as carrying out religious instruction, yet the pupils—and they are pupils, because they are there all day long and they are not getting any other form of education—are being treated appallingly, with a lack both of any proper curriculum and of safeguarding, so abuse of a really serious kind is often taking place. In these circumstances, surely the Government should move now to bring back that legislation that will close the loopholes that allow these institutions to continue to act without any proper prevention of the appalling damage that they are doing to children and young people.

I really hope that I did not give the House any impression of complacency. There is no complacency where there are serious safeguarding concerns. There have been more than 1,000 investigations by Ofsted of different out-of-school settings and, of those, 122 were offering a religious education, but there were also a number of other settings; 146 suspected illegal settings were found, 129 of those were closed or otherwise changed their operations, and we completed seven prosecutions.

My Lords, is it not possible to tackle this problem through regulations under existing legislation rather than having to wait to find the time for fresh primary legislation?

My understanding is that we would need primary legislation to address the specific instance in which schools are offering a purely religious education.

My Lords, as the Minister said, only seven providers of illegal schools have been successfully prosecuted. Proprietors of illegal unregistered schools exploit loopholes in the law around home education definitions of school. The issues and risks of unregistered religious schools have been noted already. Since the pandemic, however, reports have been raised of a new trend, including a school in Sussex run by anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. Can the Minister tell this House how widespread an issue the Government believe this to be and how soon she believes it might be possible to bring in legislation?

The noble Baroness rightly cited the seven prosecutions; however, she did not repeat the statistic that 129 of the schools investigated have either closed or changed their operations so that they comply with the law. By definition, it is difficult to track illegal unregistered schools, but there are a number of routes—for example, a member of the public or others can report concerns around extremism directly to the department.

My Lords, like the noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Whitaker, one of my big concerns about the delay in dealing with these schools is the toll it is taking on the children. They report being unprepared for modern life, forced to study a narrow curriculum from dawn to dusk with no English, maths or science available and not even speaking English. This has been delayed for years. What does the Minister have to say to them?

We are obviously extremely concerned on their behalf. Children who receive the kind of exclusive religious education that the noble Baroness refers to often receive the rest of their education at home—not exclusively but frequently. The noble Baroness will be aware that we are tightening up and reinvigorating our efforts in relation to elective home education registers so that every local authority can track whether every child is getting a suitable and safe education.

My Lords, the first job of the state is to protect its citizens and it is quite clear in this area that the Government have failed to protect those children. Is it not about time that they stopped talking and started doing?

It is probably not a good use of the House’s time for me to repeat what the Government are already doing, but I reiterate that we are working closely with local authorities, Ofsted and parents to make sure that we can get the best possible response. When legislative time allows, we will bring forward legislation in this area.

My Lords, as my noble friend outlined, some of these children fall into home education. She outlined renewed efforts in relation to this, but part of the Schools Bill that we lost was to have a register. Is it my noble friend’s view now that that can be done through other initiatives or are we going to get legislation on it as well?

I think that my noble friend knows that the Government’s position is that it would be best to have legislation in this area and to make the collection of this data mandatory. That is for two reasons: to trace those children who are home educated and unsafe and, importantly, to support those parents who are home-educating their children and perhaps struggling to do so. In the meantime, we are working closely with—and I personally have spoken to—the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to make sure that we are working in a joined-up way on this issue.